I got a copy of ‘Let England Shake’ by PJ Harvey the other day, and I’ve been listening to it a lot. I’m quite a latecomer to her music, but I now have a few albums of hers and my admiration for her music is growing. It’s always a bit unfair when you try to draw comparisons between artists who are each excellent in their own right, but her inventiveness, independence and determination not to settle on ‘a sound’ reminds me a lot of Kate Bush.
‘Let England Shake’ is not an easy listen. By that, I don’t mean that it is difficult musically. In fact, there are some quite catchy hooks in some of the songs, and it is very tuneful and melodic, despite an edgy undercurrent. It’s more that the themes and the lyrics are incredibly dark when you listen to them properly. Since they often accompany superficially rather cheery sounding music, “listening properly” to the lyrics is an experience a bit like looking closely at one of those Medieval paintings of the Last Judgement: when you see what the demons are acutally doing to the tormented souls with their pitchforks, it’s fairly shocking.
It’s an album about war, England and the English (as both victims and protagonists), and about people not wanting to contemplate the horror and dirt just beneath the surface. It’s also — perversely — a rather beautiful album. She gets under the skin of frightened people determined to survive in a way that hasn’t been done well since Kate Bush’s ‘Pull Out the Pin’. You sense the fear, utter weariness and shock, but also the drive to survive.
It’s a difficult album to describe adequately, without just telling someone to listen to it. If you watch the videos which were made by Seamus Murphy (a war photographer), you can get a feel for the layered, contradictory feeling of the album, and also the beauty. The Last Living Rose, The Words That Maketh Murder and Let England Shake are all available, and well worth a viewing, particularly ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’. It’s a catchy, almost bouncy tune, but is accompanied by the grimmest of lyrics:
I have seen and done things I want to forget;
soliders fell like lumps of meat,
blown and shot out beyond belief.
arms and legs were in the trees.
Eep. The video is interesting because it cuts between a shot of Polly Jean playing an autoharp and singing unaccompanied (sometimes cutting to that rather stripped-down audio too), and brief snapshots of everyday things. There’s a man walking a field with a broken shotgun resting in his arms, heavy metal fans at a gig, a man polishing a brass letterbox, and a hypnotic sequence of people ballroom dancing. There are also intriguing shots that I think were made with a camera obscura. None of the visuals are really directly about war, but they add immeasurably to the feel of the song. At the end, PJ finishes playing, pauses and stills the strings of her autoharp, and then just looks serenely directly into the camera, which is very arresting.
I don’t usually like music videos, and prefer to just let the music speak for itself. There’s no doubt that the album stands on its own superbly (I had listened to it several times before finding the videos), but the collaboration between Murphy and Harvey is a really interesting one, and both elements are more than the sum of their parts.