Let England Shake
By PJ Harvey, 2011
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian
The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of song,” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betray thee,
One sword at least thy right shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee.”
— Thomas Moore (1779-1852), “The Minstrel Boy”
We think we know PJ Harvey, after almost twenty years; we may not be surprised that she has made a concept album about war, since she has always inclined to forbidding themes. Her reputation for somberness would not on its own make it easier for listeners to take her seriously as the creator of Let England Shake. Spooky chicks are supposed to move on to war after having exhausted suicidal heartbreak as a topic, and from them, war isn’t supposed to matter except as a new way to explore suicidal heartbreak. PJ Harvey has written enough about romantic heartbreak, and in grandiose enough terms, for the ante to be upped very far if she turns to politics; beyond that, her physical presence is against her. The slight, gaunt-featured young woman with her soft speaking voice and genteel private manners must beg the question always asked of women who essay political violence as a topic: “What on earth does she know about it?”
She may know more than meets the eye. On previous albums, Harvey’s famous angst has often sounded more like real pain and recovery than the attitudinizing of many singers. It sounds specifically like the struggle of a gifted young person derailed from who she originally was, itself something rather peculiar. Her elfin looks would make it possible for her to drift through her career as someone to be seen, rather than known; but at some point, perhaps with what she herself admits as a dangerous period after her first album, Harvey became a person who had to grow self-consciously as a survivor, and thus to make the glimpses of her inner being more important than the surface of a persona. Not an English thing to do, and not something Harvey often does with emotions that are owned, as opposed to acted.
Her distance could make it harder to care about her inner being, let alone her personae; but it does the reverse. The secret of her charisma is that she resembles a character in a stage play. Harvey’s boyishness adds to the impression and lends it an additional, potentially tragic dimension, like that of the Minstrel Boy or Pup in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover. If anything awful happened to her for real one would feel complicit, as the audience in classical tragedy is complicit: she invites us to relate to her as her stylized being is observed, with fascination, from outside, and this, then, would be what we had come to see.
PJ Harvey is like most creative artists and composes as if the world outside does know her, inevitably putting her at a remove from the randomness of the real thing. But at her best, she creates characters and viewpoints that suggest real trauma, approached from within, with the necessary appreciation of randomness and the staginess imposed by perception. The traumas in her songs may be mysterious but they are lived within the song: cajoled, joked with, satirized, worried at, cursed out, run from screeching, returned to in humility, integrated into an essential awkwardness; all very much as authentic human beings deal with things that are not going away. Like Emily Henochowicz, Polly Harvey is often a silly little girl. For instance, a lot of her sexual acting-out has been on the level of silliness rather than reality, at least on stage: her leotards, split-schoolgirl poses, lipstick applied as if in front of Gran’s attic mirror, and Minnie Mouse shoes were all in the tradition of British sexual naughtiness that includes Monty Python and Borat, that is to say, a lot of snickering by people who don’t know what they are talking about. The private reality for Harvey was clearly a lot more complicated, with much more to say about emotional ups and downs than about getting it on, in any real detail; she got away with it because her emotional ups and downs came across as being so physical. “Rub Till It Bleeds” and “Dry” were metaphorical in a way that Marianne Faithfull’s “Why D’Ya Do It” could never be. Harvey writes about sex like a cerebral person whose feelings wrack her body and are otherwise difficult to access. The “You exhibitionist” line in “Sheela-Na-Gig,” the song that first made her notorious, carried the most weight as an accusation against an emotional person in a buttoned-down culture, especially one who has admitted to pain. Indeed the role-playing Harvey engaged in after her first difficult encounter with fame may have been a way of hiding her real project behind lewd greasepaint, and writing it all off as a joke in very British fashion. She has said that she composed much of Rid of Me “at my illest” during the breakdown she suffered after Dry. If she learned how to distance herself from her material in performance, the purpose was to reduce the temptation to identify her with her work.
But this depersonalization has only increased a sense of risk: risk to her above all, if any one of her scenarios came true. It’s in this sense that Harvey really does resemble Patti Smith, though otherwise I agree with her that comparisons are sloppy. Harvey may well have learned how to exploit a similar vocal range by listening to Smith, as Joan Baez may have done with Amalia Rodrigues; but voice and words, though not unimportant, are not the center of Harvey’s art as they are Smith’s. Harvey is first and foremost a composer and a musician. When her massive guitar fire marks the bridge of “In the Dark Places,” it announces the distinctiveness of her personality as its own source of resistance to any received antiwar sentiment. Harvey’s keening voice may be saying one thing (protest, emotiveness) but her guitar says another: that Harvey does not protest so much as she wades into acceptance for her own purposes, with the big guns on her side. Her art is a theatre of cruelty with little in common with the punk theatre of cruelty. The main victim is Harvey, as in much of punk; yet unlike the punk rocker, this victim is celebrated as such in her music, less in self-defeat than in the kind of amor fati (in retrospect) that led Patti Smith to twirl off a stage and break her neck while singing “Ain’t it Strange”: “Hand of God, feel the fever,/Hand of God, I start to whirl…Go on, go on like a dervish/Go on, God, make a move.” Smith fell on that line, and believed that it had been taken literally. She absorbed the fall into the persona of someone who is perhaps not quite willing to take any punishment, but is ready to turn almost anything into what she has to give back to the world, in martial self-realization rather than lament; she announced on the knowingly titled Easter that she’d been “Heading for a spill, but it’s all spilt milk to me… Love’s war and love’s cruel and love’s pretty cruel, pretty cruel tonight,” but “I feel it feeling no pain.” It may have been God’s move, after all, and it may be incumbent on the victim to make it count:
Oh, I would like to see you one morning,
I would like to talk this over very sincere.
Maybe we could meet in this life or after,
But until that time I’m tabling Him.
He is the one who disabled these veterans
Veterans of pushing through next to Him,
There was only one liar over in the Garden,
I don’t know when we’ll get there again.
But for now this is my answer — oh, I must accept the truth.
But then again, is this answer forever,
Or is this just one simple question, in the quest from my youth?
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”
This 1979 version of her famous cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” casting doubt on her own blasphemy (and sung while she seemed barely able to stand upright for pain), belongs to a clade of songs Patti Smith has written about her ordeal as a portal to expanded consciousness, of which the most famous is “Dancing Barefoot” from 1979: “I’m dancing barefoot, heading for a spin,/Some strange music draws me in,/Makes me come on like some heroine.” Twenty years later she was still at it, in “Lo and Beholden”:
Dove calls and God he notes it all
You know it’s true,
Here is my seventh veil and last
It will cost you.
The royal word it has been cast
The prophet’s head is all I ask
For beauty and the naked truth
It will cost you.
This sort of amor fati will be foreign to most of us, naturally. It was almost 30 years before I realized that “Dancing Barefoot” was about Smith’s literal fall, as well as her falling in love with Fred Sonic Smith of MC5, to whom she sings “Oh God I fell for you” at the end. When she returned to the stage after her husband’s passing, “Dancing Barefoot” became a direct reference to her brush with death, connected now with her widowhood but addressed directly to Him rather than him:
Oh God, I feel the fever,
Oh God, I feel the pain,
Oh God, forever after,
Oh God, I’m back again,
And oh God, I fell for You!
Though Harvey is not as brash, in keeping with her Englishness, she has some of the same tendency to masochism as a poke in the world’s eye, even a call to arms. The essential difference with Harvey is the plot she pulls out of this inclination. Smith’s is that of the adventurer humbled into giving of herself. Harvey’s story is about an innocent who must make something original of a plot not her own, that of an innocent’s betrayal and humiliation. Instead of the obvious and sentimental options she turns the plot into one of self-discovery, as if Mozart’s Cherubino were to be sent off with the Prussian army for real and find out he was really Figaro, the survivor.
Harvey’s last three solo albums renew her own cycle, following a pattern resembling her first three: Dry, Rid of Me, and To Bring You My Love. Dry and Uh Huh Her pick Harvey’s own pocket, just as critics noticed with the latter album. Were it her first, it would be hailed as the very impressive debut that Dry was, its limitations and its self-referential nature understood as those of a beginning artist at the end of the first round of things she had to say (that relationships are full of angst). Neither is a bad album, but neither gave any clue as to what was to come; Uh Huh Her bears no obvious relationship to White Chalk, a masterpiece almost equivalent to Rid of Me and resembling it closely.
To say this sounds like madness on the face of it, since no two albums sound more different. White Chalk finds Harvey singing in a soprano voice for the first time, to soft accompaniments of harmonium and self-taught piano. Rid of Me remains her most extreme album; Nirvana’s In Utero was influenced by it; it is scored for guttural vocals and bizarre electric chords, a little like Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia in its minimalist frenzy but written after, not before, some sort of terrible fall. Indeed it is tempting to imagine Rid of Me as the album Smith might have made in 1977 had she been able to record. The title track begins with a guitar riff that sounds like a heartbeat, weak but stubborn, going on for quite a while before Harvey’s voice begins with a similar sort of murmur. She sounds as if she is talking to herself, assuring herself she is alive, but barely able to find breath as she counts down a revenge fantasy up to and including rape. The rest of the album relies much on the sounds, as well as the thoughts, of a literally damaged person. “Legs” finds this proud woman humbled into a series of groans, shrieks, coughs, six-year-old revenge fantasies, and attempts at the stiff upper lip, alternating with such conviction that one can almost see her lying bloodied on a sidewalk and trying to pick herself up by first painful degrees. The lyrics to the song tell only half the story: each noise she makes in it matters, from the barely controlled but weak sobs at the beginning to the self-irony in the scream at the middle. It takes a few more songs before she can describe what happened, metaphorically if not literally, in “Hook,” which sounds to me like a rape song more gut-wrenching than X’s “Johny Hit and Run Paulene.” (PJ Harvey has sung that, by the way.) As such “Hook” approaches the transcendence of “Dancing Barefoot,” “Lo and Beholden,” and Smith’s rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” in recent performances, with the difference that “Hook” sounds like what it means. In “Dancing Barefoot” Smith turns a messy trauma into an acceptance of grace and risk, and thus of love for a man; in “Hook” a woman prostrates herself before a supernatural male who goes on to beat the daylights out of her:
And rode in
With a halo
Of deep black
Till my love
Made me gag
Called him “Daddy…”
Took my hand
Said “I’ll take you Kathleen, to your home and mine”
Good Lord he hooked me, fish hook and line
Now I’m blind
And I’m lame
Left with nothing
But his stain
Daddy your maid
She can’t sing
She can’t feel
She’s no queen
The lyrics are difficult enough, but the melody makes them unbearable, with a chorus that sounds like a person being stomped and has a moment on the musical bridge that leaves little doubt. There is enough of this sort of thing in Harvey’s corpus to make it understandable that some listeners cannot stomach her. Yet feminists have adored Harvey; if her treatment of violence turns people off, they are much likelier to be men. It is her honesty that wins respect, but it is a curious kind of honesty that turns an all-too-possible scenario into a metaphysical archetype. Harvey suggests that by laying her humiliation so bare, she is giving it back to the offender with interest. Nor do we know who or what that offender is. It could be a real-life man; it could be a demon lover; it could be fate or the world; it could be something in her imagination. It could even be God. (On 4-Track Demos, a collection of outtakes from this period, “Hook” is if anything more brutal than on Rid of Me and the battering in the middle is accomplished by an organ.) As a rape song “Hook” is hardest to take as an archetypical scenario, strongly resembling all those English folk songs in which “He’s laid her down upon her back and he’s asked of no one’s leave,” and the maiden’s redress is either to tell off the offender (“Stand off, stand off,/You’re a false deceiver” on Fairport Convention’s Full House) or, exceptionally, to name him in court as in “Royal Forester”:
She went up to the king’s high door, she knocked and she went in:
“One of your chancellors robbed me, and he’s robbed me right and clean.”
“Has he robbed you of your mantle, has he robbed you of your ring?”
“No, he’s robbed me of my maidenhead, and another I cannot find.”
The complement to “Hook” is “Ecstasy,” which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the triumph of the will. It may be the only song in Harvey’s corpus that releases her full power. Tempting as it is to ask what would happen when Harvey really gave it back, the answer is perhaps that one would finally see her at her strongest and that would be quite enough. The irony is that the strength is that of a Pyrrhic victory. Sung with confidence on 4-Track Demos, on Rid of Me the vocal part is a tatter, and a groan, that of a person at the end of her rope; but it brings in a guitar setting that suggests the arrival of an army — a power that is hard to associate with Harvey herself, or any one person, yet one which she and no one else on the scene is calling up. She sings that she is “flying, hitting heaven’s high/I’m head on brake too low… I’m telling you look at me.” While it could be a masochistic love fantasy, disagreeably exchanging the physicality of “Hook” for emotional obsession, the album gives other clues. “Hook” was followed by the gender-bending of “Man-Size Quartet” and “20-Foot Queenie” (“I’m coming up man-sized/Skinned alive/I want to fit, I’ve got to get/Man-size,” and “You bend over Casanova/No sweat, I’m clean, nothing can touch me”); the lesbian obsession of “Yuri-G”; and a reprise of “Man-Size,” followed by misery on “Dry” (“I caught it in the face/Coming round again”) as the first one recouped bitterly from “Hook.” “Ecstasy” seems to me to continue Harvey’s androgynous male identification. The ecstasy is that of the warrior who has realized his or her identity, at dreadful cost. The question asked by the guitar is if the warrior can be a warrior without a hundred bullies behind her as the real source of strength; or if she is flying on her own; or if both and more are true. Before they can be answered, the questions are lost beneath the magnificence and malevolence of the flight, as if turning into a mythical beast, or a holy warrior, is the best revenge. (In the film of The Man Who Would Be King, “The Minstrel Boy” is reworked as “The Son of God to the war is gone.”) It is an awesome track, literally, but it inspires the feeling Benjamin Britten had about the music of child gamelan players in Bali: that perhaps “it is not good that such things should be.”
Musically White Chalk is the opposite of Rid of Me. As on Rid of Me and all her other albums, one can assume that Harvey has not experienced everything she sings about on White Chalk, though the title song references her native Dorset and can be assumed to be first-person Polly Harvey:
White chalk south against time
White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme.
I walk the valleys by the Cerne,
Down a path cut 1500 years ago,
And I know these chalk hills will rot my bones.
The intimacy of this song speaks to a talent of Harvey’s that cannot be begged or bought. She is one of those artists who can seem to be singing just for the listener. There is no way she can know how much a few particular songs have moved me, including much of White Chalk, which at first frightened me enough that I had to be careful about playing it; not because it is an eerie album, though it is, but because the third wall often seemed to break down. “The Piano” can be heard many ways, for instance: it sounds like a song about domestic violence; it also might be about a ghost; it might also be a metaphor for the piano itself.
Hit her with a hammer
Teeth smashed in
Red tongues twitching
Look inside her skeleton
My fingers sting
Where I feel your fingers have been
Moving my limbs
Oh God I miss you…
Daddy’s in the corner rattling his keys
Mommy’s in the doorway trying to leave
Nobody’s listening, nobody’s listening
Oh God I miss you…
Whatever the true origin of White Chalk for Polly Harvey, it comes from a source of personal loss, going beyond grief into damage. Harvey herself does not suffer on each and every song and record — at least, the shadings of suffering that she explores differ far too much for her ever to be self-pitying, let alone confessional — but on these two albums she presents a persona that is piecing itself back together as it sings. The two are not identical in grief any more than they are in music. Rid of Me is an album of the first year, as it were, and White Chalk perhaps of the second or third. It has naked moments of pain (“Broken Harp,” “Dear Darkness”), but its clinical fineness of detail could only be mustered at a point when survival begins to be assured. Most comfortingly, Harvey’s stoicism here is intact, avoiding real disclosure in favor of pastiches of anger and grief that might always just possibly shade into truth, and are unforgettable when they do; the quality of pastiche retains Harvey’s English reserve at its most heartfelt.
PJ Harvey has much in common with Richard Thompson, whose greatness manifested itself after a severe physical and psychological trauma. She could not have less in common stylistically with Sandy Denny, and yet she recalls Thompson’s intimate musical partner in one key respect other than their Englishness: one never quite believes Harvey is telling us about something that really happened to her, or that she isn’t. This way, scenarios that partake of fantasy, soap opera, and low comedy retain at once a Shakespearean gravitas and the sense that we are looking into the depths of Harvey’s heart. On A Woman a Man Walked By, the second of two collaborations with John Parish and the last album before Let England Shake, one must be satisfied with good fragments, which on a solo Harvey record might always be incorporated into the one grand, advancing and retreating disclosure of the artist’s being and thus catch fire on their own. The title song carries conviction, not only because the lyrics are memorable, but because Harvey’s contempt for someone less brave rings true. Funny though it is, this is one place where the Harvey of “Ecstasy” may reappear, and once again the sight is not quite pretty:
I once knew a woman man
A courageous friend I thought
It turned out so wrong was I
When we were up against the wall
He had chicken liver balls
He had chicken liver spleen
He had chicken liver heart
Made of chicken liver parts.
Lily livered little parts, lily livered little parts!
Prematurely going bald, any passion long gone cold
Still I wanted to explore the damp alleyways of his soul
All the times I tried to help, he’d spit in my face and laugh,
That woman man, I want his fucking ass!
Hermaphrodite, he’s looking likely,
Cramped in a taxi, I see you too clearly,
Sucking on a little pea, sucking on a little pea
My my, you little toy — you’re just a mama’s boy
Where’s your liver where’s your heart
What’s with all your woman parts
Now it’s my turn to laugh
I’ll stick it up your fucking ass!
And so at last to Let England Shake, which I have listened to perhaps fifty times by now and have come to understand as more than a pastiche. I like and respect it enough to wonder if one day I will be embarrassed for having responded to it initially as a pastiche and worse, as a received and unearned antiwar statement of the kind so available to young poets and singer-songwriters, albeit with lovely tunes. After a while I warmed to its peculiar levity, somewhat like that of wartime poet Stevie Smith in this poem:
It was my bridal night I remember,
An old man of seventy-three
I lay with my young bride in my arms,
A girl with t.b.
It was wartime, and overhead
The Germans were making a particularly heavy raid on Hampstead.
What rendered the confusion worse, perversely
Our bombers had chosen that moment to set out for Germany.
Harry, do they ever collide?
I do not think it has ever happened,
Oh my bride, my bride.
Nothing on Let England Shake is on that level of wit, but it is possible that “I Remember” was not even meant to be witty, and “The Glorious Land,” for instance, creates a similar effect of tossing off its references in such a cavalier fashion that listeners cannot possibly be manipulated by it, whatever else they may be. American-style protest art manipulates or else “witnesses”; English war stories go through the motions.
And how is our glorious country plowed?
Not by iron plows.
Our land is plowed by tanks and feet.
And what is the glorious fruit of our land?
The fruit is deformed children.
The fruit is orphaned children.
To an American it sounds much too fatalistic for a protest song, but English war protestors are in a difficult position today. The English public is not comfortable with the servile role the nation has appeared to occupy in relation to America’s wars, but an uncomplicated pacifist identity has never been as easy for the English as for Americans, or for those in other violent societies such as Ireland (Sinéad O’Connor, Bono). The “protest” elements of “The Glorious Land” and “The Words that Maketh Murder” may be too twenty-first century English to register entirely on American ears. Harvey hits the nerve at which England must be aware of the factitiousness of its self-understanding as a pacifist nation — small, vulnerable, much-battered in living memory — and the ease with which these attributes inspire belligerence rather than any hatred of violence. It’s a masterstroke on her part to quote from a Russian ballad in “The Glorious Land.” Outwardly few nations look more different than Russia and England, rather as few records could seem more different than Rid of Me and White Chalk, but they have one thing in common: a victim complex when it comes to war, resting alongside a long history of bloodlust. And the options left each for emotional expression in the present are often restricted to a generalized concern with suffering, sympathetic in theory while in practice it can be tedious, as on the less-inspired episodes of Spooks.
But apart from the chords it strikes, particularly with English listeners, Let England Shake is the companion to To Bring You My Love, likewise representing a milestone in recovery from some kind of crisis. As with most recoveries, it’s artificial on the surface. The artificiality takes some getting used to, suggesting what my mother (born 1938 in Germany) describes with contempt as “war-as-scenery,” like the Biblical angst-as-scenery in which To Bring You My Love is drenched. What redeemed that album and made it striking is what redeems Let England Shake and makes it just possibly revolutionary. It is much more about the music than the words, the persona, even the singing, though it’s fine that all of these are accomplished and none are incidental. Once one begins to hear Harvey’s melodies as the complex living organisms they are, the suggestion of the received — that Harvey may have picked history’s pocket, or her own — is not relativized so much as it is made dynamic. The beautiful melodies of To Bring You My Love reworked the atonal Rid of Me into process as well as anguish, since the next album had found Harvey in such a different place; likewise Let England Shake could be shtick on its own but saves White Chalk from becoming shtick on one repetition, and so on. The elements of the received provide just enough distance to allow us to enjoy the music as music, and to realize that the whole point of these songs about war (as about rape and madness and religion) is what happens when we begin singing along.
So this record has repaid repeated listenings. That began when I decided that “In the Dark Places” is possibly her finest song ever, going directly where “Hook” and “Ecstasy” seemed to go while they left us teased. It too is based on a Russian song, creating a welcome change from the easily accessed British war references. This sort of indirection can be splendidly practical, as in much of Carolyn Forché’s poetry: the distance created by universalism allowing a more personal, earned way back into the historical particulars, with room for the reader or listener to add his or her own interpretations rather than being hectored. It can also lead straight back into the war-is-hell girl-with-guitar clichés that Harvey courts and flouts at the same time. “In the Dark Places” blows those clichés out of the water when a delicate, familiarly lamenting lyric gives way to a whisper of universal wisdom, pleading for what the victim of violence most needs, and then mows all the soldiers down in a way that cancels the lament. A record that threatens always to say too much turns finally on something that sounds as if it has been said before, but usually hasn’t been and isn’t. Its simplicity would be portentous in any other context but that in which it appears, bracketing the terrible and unfussy “So our young men/Hid with guns” bridge:
And not one man has
And not one woman has
Revealed the secrets
Of this world
It’s true for the dead of Stalingrad and Gallipoli, but also for Jean Stafford in “The Interior Castle,” for Patti Smith in 1977, for Dick Francis’ very English protagonists. In Isabel Colegate’s Orlando King, a twentieth-century retelling of Oedipus Rex, the title character reflects after being seriously injured in a fire: “Knowing what he suddenly did know about flesh and blood was not frightening although it was deeply serious.” That the truth of mayhem is serious in a private way is something nearly everyone uses too many words to say. By putting it in sixteen, Harvey speaks “no more than grace allowed/And no less than truth,” in the words of Stevie Smith, including that it is a truth that one does not need to have been to a battlefield to know.
She may or may not know what this is like, but Harvey has the stuff to communicate it honestly all the same, and having done that the rest of the album falls into place. Two much-admired tracks, “The Words that Maketh Murder” and “All and Everyone”, still seem to me to be trying too hard even though they are technically fine. But the other songs are all sui generis in a way that transcends protest, Gothicism, or any other externally applied labels that categorize lived engagement out of existence. That Harvey’s engagement is deeply private and her social conscience rests upon her talent for melody — the tune sticks itself in one’s mind and the words stick themselves to the tune, with personal associations soon following for the listener — is neither privatistic nor mystic, though it partakes of both elements. Let England Shake is most effective when it resembles a movie in which one overhears a woman singing to herself. “The Last Living Rose” and “On Battleship Hill” are thus far more political than “The Words that Maketh Murder.” The revulsion from violence in the latter is easily accessible to anyone with a television set, but “The Last Living Rose” carries a burden of idiosyncratic Englishness that will make anyone feel more strongly about any threats to it, together with the senses in which England deserves a good thrashing:
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey damp filthiness of ages
And battered books, and fog rolling down behind the mountains…
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings,
Past the Thames river, glistening like gold hastily sold
“On Battleship Hill” brings us closer to the pity of violence than the handsomely mounted, but predictable Gallipoli song, “All and Everyone.” In a land too saturated with history always to see the present, “On Battleship Hill” laments the passage, with time, of any trace of history, accessing the particular through the universal of “Cruel nature/Cruel, cruel nature.” Harvey says as much in an interview:
I was thinking about the cycle of conflict that’s ongoing, always will be, always has been, and long after we’re come and gone, it’s just going to continue, so—this nature of history repeating itself—so I wanted to look at conflict across many eras…and I think one thing that does connect is nature, the land, what we do to the land, the way it keeps going after we’re buried in it, you know, and so that was a focus…war’s just going to continue and the continuum is the land…but also great beauty there, as something of hope…I didn’t want to lose sight of that. (Interview available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSOMnKuYRy0&feature=fvwrel.)
This approach risks turning war into a trope, just another force of nature; on the other hand, it is honest. And anyone can identify with it. Like many people for whom particular places have inescapable associations, Harvey is sure that “On Battleship Hill, eighty years later,/A hateful feeling still lingers,” but observing that there is no evidence of this beyond what she wishes to see, she allows that “cruel nature has won again” and decides that this is what she hears “carried on the wind.” We are left to decide whether war is the same as “cruel nature” or not. But “cruel nature” exists; for some it will not be on Battleship Hill but closer to home that “a hateful feeling still lingers” because “cruel nature has won again.” Harvey’s answer to the riddle is sane: it is madness to project human pain onto parts of nature that saw it, when each and every inch of the world has seen it; yet knowing this, and knowing that nature will truly win in the end when no one is left to remember one’s grievance, would one want to be without that grievance, now? There is comfort in this; and yet like a true Englishwoman, Harvey recognizes the catch, as in Edith Sitwell’s observation that “Hell is just as properly proper/As Greenwich, or Bath, or Joppa.”
To communicate these things, Harvey’s style has changed, but remains very much hers. Those who have criticized her new debts to folk-pop and classical music ignore the elements of both her work has always possessed: much on To Bring You My Love recalls Steeleye Span, and her ugliest music on Rid of Me suggests that the basis of her guitar style is classical. In the same spirit, those who criticize the artificiality of the war-consciousness on Let England Shake should remember that her consciousness has always been expressed through a maze of artificial personae and been separated from her attitudinizing only with difficulty. Hers is the matter of Britain: less the question of who a person is when the mask is removed, than which mask pulls off which part of a person with it. The difference between Harvey and cookie-cutter English war poets is that she is aware of it in assuming this mask among others. Having realized this, “All and Everyone” has recently begun to grow on me, and “The Words that Maketh Murder” may not be far behind.
If she does not convince us that she knows war by anything but second- and third-hand, Harvey convinces that she is herself on this album and if she were forced to know “the secrets of this world” of violence, her response would implicate everything we’ve seen of her thus far. Her self is elusive, but its awareness of its own fragility is not. We know just enough about it to know what would be lost with it if the fragility of all life exacted too much of a price. “Ecstasy” suggests that it is complicated, and perhaps not always sympathetic, but perhaps also something better than sympathetic. Recalling “Ecstasy,” she points to what may be a key in the title of a B-side associated with the new album, and as good as most things on it: “The Big Guns Call Me Back Again.”
PJ Harvey is many, if not always an army as in “Ecstasy”; she may be too many for some, and she is not to be taken lightly; by her enemies no more than by her friends, I should think. One may not wish to meet all of her on a dark night. Fortunately, we are seldom all of who we are at once, and PJ Harvey knows the wisdom of embracing this fact. She remains adept at hiding in plain sight. It’s an English thing to do.