PJ Harvey is Mortal

PJ Harvey is a genius musician whose songs often provide keen insight into human nature, but she isn’t a journalist. She tries to be one on her new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which focuses on modern politics and her experiences traveling to Washington D.C., Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In the process, she proves that even the most gifted, well-intentioned and insightful artists aren’t immune to the lapses in judgment that happen when you stumble out of your comfort zone.

Part of Let England Shake‘s greatness was that it pulled off a delicate balancing act: Harvey was using stories she wasn’t a witness to and interpreting history to make observations about modern society, which can be a heavy feat to try to pull off in a series of short songs and comes at the risk of the artist not knowing what they’re talking about. It worked because there was the personal connection Harvey had to England, and because it was telling stories from the more distant past that weren’t fresh in most people’s minds and were thus more ripe for interpretation.

The Hope Six Demolition Project struggles because it is focused on the present, which makes the issues more controversial and well-known. When Harvey describes an area of Washington D.C. as “a shithole” with drug-using “zombies” in “The Community of Hope,” she is talking about a place where people currently live — and many of them aren’t too happy about the portrayal. Harvey toured the area with a reporter, and in his description of the encounter, she comes across as an outsider who floated in, jotted down some notes, and confirmed her pre-existing conclusion about the area without actually talking to any of its residents. Much of this album has that similar cursory feel, like it is only scratching the surface of its themes without having all the information or nuance. She is like a reporter who didn’t do all of her homework before submitting a story.

It sounds silly to talk about these sorts of journalistic standards in music, as if I would expect Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers to thoroughly research the effects of “Californication” before playing a song about it. But Harvey has established a different standard for herself, and if an artist of her caliber is going to try something of this scope, my expectations are going to be high. And it is Harvey herself who is missing from this album: without the personal connection to the subject matter, like she had on Let England Shake, the lyrics are just the kind of political commentary that everyone who is on the internet is tired of hearing about. The perspectives she is offering aren’t fresh or thought-provoking, and the focus on distant observations about foreign cities makes her seem like an intruder into other people’s stories.

This criticism probably makes the album sound like a disaster, but it’s fine musically and most artists would be happy to ever make something that sounds like this. After a couple albums of ghostly songs that used her higher register, Harvey sings more forcefully on this album and brings back some of the noise and chaos of her early albums in the form of honking saxophone parts and some distorted guitar. However, the sound also doesn’t feel all that new for Harvey, since it’s a lot of parts and ideas she’s used in her previous music, as opposed to one of her customary skin-sheddings like on White Chalk. Combined with the lyrics (which admittedly are hard to separate from the music for me), it is part of why this album is flat and uninspired for her standards.

The Hope Six Demolition Project will likely go down as one of my least favorite PJ Harvey albums, but it is a fascinating project that makes me think a lot about the limitations of music. In the span of 3-5 minutes, musicians can do incredible things and make us feel inspired, sad, or amazed. But in terms of portraying complex political issues and communities, subjects that demand a certain amount of nuance and space, maybe it isn’t possible to accomplish what Harvey is trying to do here. Certainly, if she can’t do it, I’m skeptical that anyone else can.

PJ Harvey – “The Wheel”

Five years after Let England Shake — which some reputable music bloggers consider to be one of the best albums of recent memory — PJ Harvey is back with a new song, “The Wheel,” from her upcoming album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. While Harvey is known for dramatically changing her sound and persona from album to album, this song feels like it’s on the same path that Let England Shake was, as it maintains the folk-inspired music and lyrics drawing on war and conflict. However, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a rehash of that album, and the song feels like the the logical next step from it.

On “The Wheel,” Harvey is broadening some of the themes from Let England Shake, turning her focus to more global politics rather than only her homeland and also touching on more contemporary subject matter instead of drawing entirely from the more distant past. But the main theme — the cyclical nature of war and terrible things done in its name — is fittingly still here, illustrated by the metaphor of the titular “revolving wheel” that keeps spinning as children disappear. The video shows Harvey in Kosovo, which she visited while working on the album, but the lyrics themselves don’t specify the conflict she is referring to.

Harvey is known for not repeating herself on her albums, which is why it’s ironic that “The Wheel” is book-ended by two very noticeable repetitions. First, there’s the intro, a burst of chaotic noise with handclaps and a recurring saxophone part that lasts over 1:20 in the unedited version. Then there’s the outro, where Harvey repeats the phrase “and watch them fade out” over 20 times, which lasts 1:25 and is reminiscent of one of her most famous songs.

I’ve become obsessed with the outro in particular. In the context of the song, it is referring to the 28,000 missing children, but it’s easy to start thinking of other meanings it could have as she keeps repeating the phrase. And the fact that she says “and watch them fade out” so many times, over and over, speaks volumes in and of itself — just like the wheel keeps turning, we keep watching children fade out, and Harvey keeps singing it, shifting between a sense of accusation and resignation. In the world of art about war, “watch them fade out” is a worthy successor to a similar refrain: “so it goes.”

Four Years Later, “Let England Shake” is Still Great

Let England Shake was probably my most anticipated album ever when it was released in February 2011. But when I heard it was an album about war, I was scared, because my experience with anti-war media has often been negative. Too frequently, it has this obvious “stop the fighting maaaaaannnnnn” tone, and the only emotion it creates is embarrassment on behalf of the artist, who had the audacity to think their whimpery songs could actually make a real difference in how people view international relations.

In retrospect, I should have had more faith in PJ Harvey, who is my favorite artist in large part because she never takes the obvious, easy route. On her solo albums, she has constantly done the unexpected, adopting new personas and sounds so that each album she makes is a very pure, stand-alone vision. Her last album before Let England Shake was White Chalk, a haunting, piano-driven album that shared literally no resemblance to any of her previous music and confounded many of her fans. I figured if any artist could handle the subject of war, it would be her, but it was hard to imagine someone doing justice to the topic within the confines of a 40-minute album.

On first listen, Let England Shake could be mistaken for one of those embarrassing anti-war albums. The lyrics that jump out are the violent or polemic ones, like on “The Glorious Land” when she says “what is the glorious fruit of our land?/the fruit is deformed children” while out-of-place war trumpets play in the background, or when soldiers fall “like lumps of meat” in “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Certainly, in some respects, Let England Shake fits the mold of conventional war art, with the horrifying “war is hell” imagery and generally defiant stance. But the more I’ve listened to this album over the last few years and thought about it, the more I’ve realized that it is so much deeper than it may first appear — anyone who writes it off as a shrill political album is not giving PJ Harvey enough credit and is misconstruing her intentions.

Let England Shake is primarily concerned with history and place. It is about how the past is always with us, even if we weren’t there to see it ourselves, and how a nation’s previous decisions can continue to haunt those who are still living there today. These themes are there in the lyrics, but are also cleverly present in the music itself, in particular through the use of sampling — “The Words That Maketh Murder” borrows the lyrics “I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations” from Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues,” while “Written on the Forehead” samples “Blood and Fire” by Niney the Observer. These samples create an effect where ghosts from the history of music are present in her songs, mirroring the album’s stories of past wars and fallen soldiers that are still, in a sense, with us today.

Harvey plays an interesting role on Let England Shake, as a woman describing the theater of war, which has historically been created and populated by men. Singing in her upper register, similar to White Chalk, she mostly acts as a narrator, describing the atrocities she sees in vivid detail — in my mind, I imagine her floating around the battlefield like a ghost. The lyrics often seem inspired by World War I poets like Siegfried Sassoon, or other classic poems from Britain’s past (the story of “All and Everyone” is reminiscent of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”), and they have the same power as the stories from people who lived these wars. But while Let England Shake is heavily steeped in the past, it never forgets to relate it to the present, and it asks real questions about how people have to live with their nation’s histories.

These themes come through most clearly on “England,” where Harvey drops her role of narrator and sings directly from the current-day first-person perspective.

I live and die through England
Through England
It leaves a sadness
Remedies never were within my reach
I cannot go on as I am
Withered vine reaching from the country
That I love
You leave a taste
A bitter one
I have searched for your springs
But people, they stagnate with time
Like water, like air
To you, England, I cling
Undaunted, never failing love for you

This is obviously the song where the album’s sense of place is most apparent, and it captures this very specific, ambivalent feeling that is also common among Americans. I often feel a connection to my country and sometimes even a level of pride in it, but it is so frequently matched by disgust for the things done in America’s name, either presently or in the past. So much of Let England Shake is about this uncertain attachment, and it’s part of why I think it goes beyond just being an anti-war album: while it is criticizing moments in England’s past, it is coming from a place of deep love and connection, which is what “England” really articulates. It’s the song that really ties together the album’s themes and helps push it beyond being a stodgy history lesson.

A theme I’ve found to be present in nearly all of PJ Harvey’s work is the tension between ugliness and beauty. Her early music, in particular 1993’s Rid of Me, was self-consciously ugly and intended to shock, with abrasive production, noisy guitars, and the austere cover art showing her naked in a bathtub with her hair coiled like Medusa. 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was intentionally the opposite, an attempt to make a beautiful album with lush guitar reverb and actual love songs — music videos from the album like “Good Fortune” showed Harvey looking more glamorous, confidently strutting around New York City. Let England Shake is the synthesis of these two extremes: it has a graceful, beautiful folk sound, but the lyrics and themes are ugly, violent, and ambiguous, much in the way her early music was. This is why Let England Shake often feels to me like a culmination of all her previous work, and proof that while she sounds different, her music still hits incredibly hard.

The same year Let England Shake came out, I ended up taking an English course in War literature. My final paper for the class was about Slaughterhouse-Five and used one of my favorite quotes from the novel: when Kurt Vonnegut says he is writing an anti-war novel, a filmmaker replies “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” The strength of that book and Let England Shake is that they don’t fall into the trap of merely being anti-war and thus anti-glaciers. Instead, they study the impact it has on the people who lived it and those who came after. I try not to say albums are “literary” since they’re their own thing, but Let England Shake has a level of nuance and depth that is exceedingly rare in music, and it holds up even when compared to authentic war literature. I consider it to be the most impressive musical accomplishment of the last several years, and one that I think is legitimately important to listen to.