Let England Shake – PJ Harvey
“We got up early, washed our faces
Walked the fields and put up crosses
Passed through the damned mountains
Went hellwards and some of us returned
And some of us did not
In the fields and in the forests
Under the moon and under the sun
Another summer has passed before us
And not one man has, not one woman has Revealed the secrets of this world
So our young men hit with guns in the dirt
And in the dark places
Our young men hit with guns in the dirt
And in the dark places
Our young men hit with guns in the forests And in the dark places
And not one man has, not one woman has
Revealed the secrets of this world”
I should start by saying that I’m only familiar with PJ Harvey’s very early stuff, and somehow missed what she’s done for most of her career. Nonetheless, this album, released in February of 2011, has recently grabbed me.
Every generartion since time immemorial has its war music, and the topic crosses through every genre, from the bombastic 1812 Overture and Benjamin Britten’s landmark War Requiem, to the 1960’s folk protest song. The reason is obvious – war stirs extreme and confusing emotions and experiences, and the arts addressing it try to make some sense of it, for both those directly, and indirectly involved.
In Let England Shake, PJ Harvey and filmmaker Seamus Murphy take a hard look back at the defining conflicts their country has experienced over the past century, and reinterpret that history in a way that addresses the current war generation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The danger in making art about war is that one will become too heavy-handed, but Harvey and Murphy navigate the territory well, not shying away from being explicit, but not indulging in it. There are countless war songs out there, but no artist has surmounted the challenges of making an entire album on the topic. As the NME put it: “Francis Ford Coppola can lay claim to the war movie. Ernest Hemingway the war novel. Polly Jean Harvey, a 41-year-old from Dorset, has claimed the war album. And like Coppola and Hemingway, calls it straight…”
The lyrics are succinct and the musical production is hazy and ethereal, at times verging on the raw distorted psychedelia of the Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star. Each song develops constantly, and ends differently than it begins. The changes are often disjointed, which match well the jarring nature of violence. Atop this dreamlike bed, Harvey’s voice is powerful and plaintive, and recalls the folk singers of the 1960’s.
The music alone is a masterpiece, but one cannot talk about Let England Shake without including the equally brilliant films that accompany each song. War photographer Seamus Murphy treats his videos in much the same way as Harvey approaches her music – not shy, but not over-the-top; hard and soft in equal measure.
Much of his footage is of daily life in England and, with the music, create an elegy to a home that is lost in nostalgia and memories. When you miss something, even mundane details carry weight. Murphy captures that feeling poetically in his images. Each video begins with a person (Murphy engages everyday people for his scenes) reciting some of the lyrics of the following song. It’s an element that draws you in an unusual and intimate way.
The work reflects on the past – in fleeting images, and in references to the slaughter of trench warfare, and the Gallipoli Campaign, a horrific and tragic episode of World War I which has long been the inspiration of English-speaking songwriters. It also, of course, tries (all one can do with such a topic is try) to address the impact of our current conflicts, and to address both the nobility and tragedy of war. Most poignantly, it also considers the future – how history repeats itself, and how the generation that follows ours may be resigned to further futile killing.
Albums that can stand as a continuous piece of coherent and developing thought are very hard to come by. Add the fact that Let England Shake has been created around such an incredibly thorny topic as war and you have a masterful piece of art.