Friday, February 25, 2011

Shook Ones: A Few Theories About The Songs On PJ Harvey's Album

After two weeks, I'm slowly wrapping my head around PJ Harvey's Let England Shake. Harvey's formidable back catalog ensures that her new music receives rapt attention it deserves, and the album doesn't disappoint in this respect. And PJ's idiosyncratic muse--only Neil Young's is more restless--guarantees that whatever lens shed light on her previous work is now outdated.

As critics have noted, Let England Shake is preoccupied with two themes: war and England. Neither of these is without precedent. In "The Soldiers"--a beautiful song so wrenching it's difficult to listen to--from Harvey's 2009 album with John Parish, she dreams about fighting in the Korean War. And England has long been a fixation--2007's White Chalk sounded like Harvey haunting the English countryside, and 2000's Stories From The City, Stories From The City was partly about her Dorset roots.*

Yet the songs on Let England Shake are distinct. They share some of the lightness that colored White Chalk, and Harvey's delivery, which relies on her upper register, places us firmly after that album. But the sound here is more fleshed out. The xylophone that begins a few seconds into the album is new, and there's a stronger rhythmic presence. Drummer Jim White is gone, but his Dirty Three colleague Mick Harvey joins Harvey's coterie, who often swap instruments. These songs churn when they choose to, sweeping up Harvey's autoharp. Thanks in no small part to the strange noise of that instrument, Let England Shake sounds distant, as if played from miles away.

Another aspect of this album--and this one is lost on no one--is the gulf between the compositions, which I suppose you could call "pretty," and the violent lyrical content. This isn't the emotional violence of PJ's early records (the acidic guitar of her first two albums is again absent), but violence in the most literal sense. In one song, "soldiers fall like lumps of meat," in another, "the music of drunken beatings" fills England's alleys. In "The Glorious Land," the narrator inquires after the glorious fruit of England's land. The answer? "Deformed children."

Like everyone else, I'm still parsing this. The ethereal rush of "Glorious" is really a thing to behold, but the relationship between the music and the lyrical content is oblique.** When I feel like I identify a piece of the puzzle, I still fall short of a clear picture. I do propose that the presence of male vocals--not a large presence on England, though more so than on other PJ albums--explains something, even if I couldn't tell you exactly what. The same is true of the narration: more of these songs are in the third person, or are sung by a character distant from the action, than on any other Harvey album. Likewise, the anachronistic bent of Let England Shake's violence plays a role. The soldiers on this album died before Harvey was born; this is not music about Iraq.

However, I have decoded one of this album's building blocks, in its various allusions. I count four songs on Let England Shake with direct references to other songs--one sample, one borrowed lyric, and two recontextualized musicial phrases. There may be others, which I'd love to discuss in the comments. We'll go through the four corresponding songs, but first I want to make my point. Which is this: each referent speaks to the history of violence that Let England Shake is fixated on. Consider:

  • The xylophone on the title track, which opens the album. That line is lifted from--and this is genius--"Istanbul" by The Four Lads.*** The songs don't bare much resemblance. The xylophone is based on the chorus of "Istanbul," and the Four Lads tune is a catchy novelty unconcerned with human misery. But that song, with its generically exotic melody, notes that Istanbul was once Constantinople. The Lads don't explore this ("it's nobody's business but the Turks"), but "Let England Shake" seizes on the history. I think the reference is to the bloody Siege of Constantinople, during which the Ottomans defeated the city's Christian rulers, effectively ending the Byzantine Empire. Afterwards, Constantinople became Istanbul.
  • "This Glorious Land" begins with a familiar bugle call. Not so familiar that I can name it--perhaps you can help out? However, the bugle's presence, incongruous and seemingly off-beat, transports the song to the battlefield before Harvey even sings. Once she starts, it stays there.
  • In the last minute of "The Words That Maketh Murder" (see what I mean about the anachronisms?), John Parish begins to sing, "what if I take my problem to the United Nations?" PJ shortly joins him, and they duet over bottleneck guitar. It's one of the album's best moments. It is also--as any scholar of rock will note--a "Summertime Blues" reference. In that song--originally by Eddie Cochoran, later twisted into a definitive proto-metal version by Blue Cheer--the lyric goes, "I got to take three weeks/I got to have a fine vacation/I got to take my problem to the United Nations." While the song might seem to place faith in the mediating powers of the U.N., in the next line, a congressman ignores the narrator. In "Murder" Harvey and Parish adapt and deploy the line with great irony. On an album where violence mars each track, the futility of taking one's problems to the U.N. is a given.
  • Finally, the gentle slipstream of "Written On The Forehead" is propelled by a reggae tune. The song is "Blood And Fire," by singer/producer Niney The Observer. In a few short lines, Niney describes a world in which there is no water, only fire. The chorus, which Harvey borrows, is a chant: "Let it burn, let it burn." "Blood And Fire" concerns a day of reckoning, and the picture it paints ("judgment has come and mercy has gone"), compliments the moral world of Let England Shake.
In these instances, Harvey draws upon music that either suggests the violence she depicts, or else twists the music to fit her purposes (a bit of semantic violence, if you will). This is one thread of Let England Shake.

There are many others, which Harvey's dedicated fans will be unspooling for years to come. I'd like to direct your attention a lyric from "The Last Living Rose":
past the Thames River/glistening like gold/hastily sold/for nothing
My line breaks are approximate, but Harvey's words are exact. Even as her lyric reveals an immediate meaning, it seems to withhold some hidden intent. There's mystery in this line--my favorite I've heard in quite some time--and like the rest of Let England Shake, it invites close, repeated listens. I'm happy to oblige.

*While we're on the subject of these two albums: I'm willing to go to bat for the gothic White Chalk as PJ's absolute best, while I find that Stories is probably her only overrated disc.
**This isn't true, I'd say, of most of Harvey's work. I already mentioned Dry and Rid Of Me, both brutal in lyrics, delivery, and instrumentation. Even on "White Chalk," when a song was insubstantial, I think it bore similarities to the mental states that the album portrayed (i.e. on "When Under Ether").
*** Heather Phares of Allmusic pointed this out.

1 comment:

  1. The eagle-eyed @cswearngin points out that the bugle call is "Last Post," and shares an article that looks at the album from a similar perspective, including information about the sources and inspirations that Harvey's mentioned lately:

    looks like there's more to the istanbul reference...i suspect that article is more correct than me. there's an england connection, and it's true the name only officially changed in the 20th c