“Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” —from P.J. Harvey’s song “England”
The new year belongs to England, or so it seems after a week listening to and living in P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake (Vagrant 2011) and watching a DVD of the first season of BBC’s savage, shamelessly gripping detective series Luther. As if those two brilliant broadsides weren’t enough, 2012 is also the Charles Dickens bicentenary. Since the “man who invented Christmas” also had a lot to do with the invention of England, the coming year presents an opportunity to explore one’s inner anglophile and/or anglophobe. If you’ve ever lived for an extended period in the place Nathaniel Hawthorne called “Our Old Home,” you’ve probably known both extremes.
Winner of the Mercury Prize as the best album of 2011 and the Guardian’s choice for Album of the Year, Polly Jean Harvey’s latest record should not be approached as either an indictment of her homeland or an anti-war polemic. Let England Shake is a work of art for the ages. At the moment I can’t remember the last time an album this side of Mozart or Charlie Parker has encouraged me to think in those terms. Well aware of the kneejerk reaction of certain benighted critics (the only one so far is Robert Christgau, who calls it, incredibly, “a suite of well-turned if unnecessarily understated antiwar songs”), Harvey has made it clear in various interviews how careful she was not to let the album become preachy or overtly political. While she’s admitted that her intentions could be called “political,” she uses the term only in the broadest sense, as in “how people relate to one another.”
Harvey’s lyrics can be as unsparing as the dark twists and turns of the action in Luther: England’s “weighted down with silent dead,” its “dancing days are done,” and “by the shores/heavy stones are falling.” In “The Last Living Rose,” Harvey sings:
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings
Past the Thames river glistening
Like gold hastily sold
For nothing … nothing
In “This Glorious Land,” the answer to her question, “What is the fruit of our glorious land?” is “deformed children” and “orphaned children.”
Charles Dickens might not be quite so harsh, but he would know where she’s coming from, having created characters like Fagin and Bill Sikes and, in Bleak House, a man so freighted with the stuff of sin that he simply exploded, leaving a toxic miasma in his wake. In Neil Cross’s fascinating Luther, mentally deformed Londoners kidnap, torture, and murder women and children and occasionally men, and England’s favorite couple, Alice and Luther, a pretty psychopath and a troubled black genius chief of detectives, take their romance to another level, discussing Paradise Lost in a church while a statue of Milton listens in.
And now we have the return of Downton Abbey, English life upstairs and downstairs during the Great War, featuring another star-crossed couple, Matthew and Mary. In Let England Shake, P.J. Harvey sings of war and death and pain with a ferocity that puts the token battle scenes in Downton Abbey to shame. While the themes and movements coming together in the concluding episode of Luther will have your heart in your throat, Harvey’s “All and Everyone” is a far more sophisticated and accomplished piece of emotional enchantment, driven, even diabolic, in its relentless pattern of pressure and release, crescendo and diminuendo, pounding out its message of death “everywhere, in the air.” Death isn’t confined to the battlefield, it’s as the title says “all and everyone.” The way the song is paced, moving in grim, stirring surges, creates an intensity that is both harrowing and beautiful. But then every song in this album is rich with beauty, no matter how grim the lyric or how dirge-like the sax/trombone/drumbeat of doom created by Harvey, who plays saxophone as well as autoharp, and is accompanied by John Parish, Mick Harvey (no relation), and John Marc Butty.
“The Dark Places,” another devastating lament (“So our young men hid/with guns, in the dirt/and in the dark places”), is as raw and pure as a cry of anguish. There’s nothing of mere message in Let England Shake. Like the title, the music simply moves in on you, grabs you, holds you, and, yes, shakes you.
“The world we live in” was Harvey’s answer when she was asked by an interviewer what inspired the album. These 12 songs ultimately celebrate life, music, nature, love, poetry, and the creative spirit. At the same time, considering that war and waste, greed and madness, sickness and death, are all worthy, challenging subjects for an artist with Harvey’s gifts, she embraces them, takes them on, makes a mission of them. When the album came out last February, she told an interviewer on Radio 4 that she’d started wondering “where the officially appointed war songwriter was. You’ve got your war artists, like Steve McQueen, and your war photographers. I fantasized that I had been appointed this official songwriter.” When her thoughts were brought to the attention of Roger Tolson at the Imperial War Museum, he was ready to explore the possibility that Harvey might actually visit the war zone in Afghanistan, submitting her name to the museum’s committee for discussion.
Clearly Harvey had a great deal more than England, the Great War, and the Gallipoli debacle on her mind during the two years she was gathering material for this album. She told New Musical Express that what most interested her were the “cycles of conflict across many eras” from World War I “right up to Iraq and Afghanistan” and “long after we’ve come and gone.” Part of her lengthy preparation involved reading blogs from Afghani women and Iraqis, “to hear what people are actually saying now.” Another key influence was Darkness Visible: Afghanistan, a photography exhibit by Seamus Murphy, whose videos accompany each of the album’s 12 songs. Since the lyrics are not always completely audible, Murphy begins most of his videos with someone speaking words from the song (my favorite is the auto mechanic reciting “Bitter Branches” as he works on an engine).
Harvey considers her conflicted view of England, “the push and pull you feel with your native land,” as a universal reality, something she hopes people from other countries will understand and sympathize with when they hear Let England Shake. In the title track, which is sung over the xylophone riff from the old pop novelty song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” a play on the Gallipoli theme, Harvey creates a realm of sound that rises like a rainbow over a lyric “weighted down with the silent dead.” The words and music run free, turning heavy death into a fountain to “splash about, swim back and forth, and laugh out loud” in.
From the first song on, Harvey gives herself up to the “cruel nature” of her theme, which the wind says “has won again” in “On Battleship Hill.” The first time you hear “England,” where she sings beyond singing in a transport of pure sound, it’s hard to listen to, a dissonant wailing that blends stridently with a sample of “Kassem Miro” by Said el Kurdi. As the song progresses, she seems to be letting it have its way with her, as if the song were singing her. The effect is searing, like the sound of an embattled spirit crying to be heard.
“England” is as scary a love song as you’ll ever hear, but a love song is what it profoundly is, “Undaunted, never failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” Compared to Harvey’s England, Kate Bush’s love song for her homeland in “Lionheart” is an idyll. When Bush sings the line “You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames — That old river poet that never, ever ends,” she wants love of England to make your heart ache, not to pierce it. While Polly’s war and death England tears her up, Kate dives into her lyrical war (“Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge”) where “the air raid shelters are blooming clover,” and, typically, kiss-me Kate sings, “Give me one kiss in apple-blossom./Give me one wish, and I’d be wassailing/In the orchard, my English rose.”
The “drunken beatings” in P.J. Harvey’s “Last Living Rose” that suggest the land of Luther take a gentler turn (“the sky move, the ocean shimmer, the hedge shake”) at the end. But the music recalls a line from an older song, Sinéad O’Connor’s “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.”
Then there’s Ray Davies’s England in Arthur, Or the Decline and Fall of The British Empire, but that’s something for another column, in the year of Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday.
If Ray is the UK’s rock and roll poet laureate, P.J. Harvey in Let England Shake performs in that realm where issues of custom, culture, time and place give way to the power of art. I can imagine her singing for England’s poets and writers, composers and painters, Turner and Whistler, Dickens and Wilde, Britten and Elgar, Rupert Brooke and Kipling, Chaplin and Shaw, among many others, dating back to Blake and Milton, shadowy figures in the balcony of the church in Harvey’s Dorset hometown of Bridport, where the album was recorded, watching the woman holding the autoharp to her chest and singing “I live and die through England.”