By P.J. Harvey
As you look back over the past decade of popular music, the thing that stands out is how introspective and self-obsessed much of it has been. Given the significance of the events that transpired in the 2000s—from the attacks of 9/11, to an unprecedented two simultaneous foreign wars waged by the United States, to a financial crisis that brought the Western world to the brink—it’s remarkable that musicians had so little regard for the world around them.
It perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that Billboard’s top twenty grossing records of the decade were intellectually irrelevant, given how good the major label music industry had become at polishing their products for mass consumption. But the situation is not much better when you look at several critics’ polls for the decade, most of which are stocked with independent artists on smaller labels. It’s not just that few of the records are even remotely political; it’s that almost none attempt to deal with the world in any way except the intensely personal. (The only obvious exceptions on the Rolling Stone top 100 list are Bruce Springsteen, with his post-9/11 rumination The Rising, the English and Sri Lankan artist M.I.A., whose second album Kala dabbled in political activism, and Green Day’s American Idiot, which hamfistedly grappled with terrorism paranoia.) If popular music can be said to be a kind of mirror for the spirit of our time, our era is resoundingly a catatonic one.
It was therefore an unfamiliar pleasure that came over me as I started listening to P.J. Harvey’s latest album, Let England Shake. Here at last was someone ungluing her eyes and taking the gauze from her ears to engage with what was going on around her. More remarkable still was the subtlety and dexterity with which she tackled her notoriously difficult subject: war.
The album hardly came from nowhere. Polly Jean Harvey has had a storied and very successful career since she broke out in the early 1990s. I recall seeing the video for her single “50 ft Queenie” in steady rotation when as a teenager I stayed up late for MTV’s indie rock showcase 120 Minutes. Even early on, she revealed an uncanny ability to disquiet her audience—in this case double-tracking her vocals, with one track sung in a much higher register but also more quietly, giving a distinctly hysterical wheeze to the arrangement. By 2001, three albums later, she was recognized as an accomplished songwriter by being awarded the prestigious Mercury prize for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. (Incidentally, a rattled Harvey accepted the prize over the phone from Washington on the afternoon of September 11th as she watched the Pentagon burn outside her hotel room window.) Perhaps feeling liberated by this new sense of achievement, she released ever-sparser, darker and inward-looking records throughout the aughties.
By any measure, though, Let England Shake is a very different record than anything she’s attempted before. Whereas most of her earlier work growls in one way or another, this effort shimmers—the guitars positively chime with reverb and the vocals are similarly cloaked in some sort of echo. Rhythmically, the songs are short, simple affairs, gently shuffling along. The drama comes from her floating, distant-sounding voice and haunting minor chord accompaniments. The result is eerily hypnotic and sadly beautiful. Within this context, the lyrical content is arresting. Patriotic without being jingoistic, awed by war’s brutality and cost without moralizing, Harvey paints a deeply moving, and very English, tableau about that most ancient and most human of activities.
The opening title track sets the tone for the record, a mix of elegy and frustration. “The West’s asleep, let England shake,” she spectrally warns as she strums her autoharp over a jaunty piano line. “I fear our blood won’t rise again. England’s dancing days are done.” The culprit, she tells us, is willful indifference. “Smile, smile Bobby, with your lovely mouth. Pack up your troubles and let's head out to the fountain… swim back and forth and laugh out loud.”
The indifference, one surmises, is towards history, its cruelty, and the inevitability of its repetition. In “The Words that Maketh Murder,” Harvey mocks the dream of setting up human institutions to prevent wars. “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget,” she chirps from afar, before laying out a grisly litany. “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief. Arms and legs were in the trees… Flies swarming everyone. Over the whole summit peak flesh quivering in the heat. This was something else again. I fear I cannot explain.” And as words begin to fail her, a man starts singing “What if I take my problem to the United Nations…?” over lap-steel evoking the theme from High Noon. In the face of such horrors, the UN is a punchline.
The other highlights of the record follow quickly one upon the other. “The Glorious Land” sounds a distant-sounding off-tempo and off-key bugle call at various points throughout the song, adding that ineffable disquiet with which Harvey is so adept at imbuing her work. The soaring vocals which open “On Battleship Hill” evoke the winds sweeping that old Gallipoli battlefield 80 years later, as “the land returns to how it has always been.” And it’s difficult not to shiver when she hides “our young men… with guns, in the dirt and in the dark places.”
None of the songs are celebratory of war—there’s a profound sadness undergirding everything, a sense of tragedy and loss. But there’s also a resignation and acceptance that this story is an eternal component of the human experience, and that there’s a poignancy and beauty to be appreciated there. It’s as if the album is an extended rumination on Goya’s Fight with Cudgels from his famous Black Paintings: two men stand poised to club each other to death in a vast and beautiful field—because this is what men do.
Let England Shake shows that popular music is capable of making complete and satisfying statements on big and important matters without resorting to tired political cliché. If Harvey’s triumph is a harbinger of more outward-looking popular music to come, or if it serves as an inspiration to musicians to look past the laces of their own shoes, we’ll all be better off. But more likely (and more depressingly) P.J. Harvey may be another in a long line of Cassandras, her message ignored by a youth transfixed by their own navels. Or worse still, in her own words, perhaps “indifference has won, won, won” and the slow death of our culture is assured.