Speaking about Generation Kill, the HBO mini-series about an American Marines battalion in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, series co-writer Evan Wright described the show’s mixture of intense combat and dark humor as intentionally discomforting. Yet members of the actual Marines unit felt it accurate, saying that humor was a “coping mechanism” and a “no-brainer.” What these soldiers and the series achieved — a seemingly contradictory balance of emotional highs and lows — is also the basis of the blues. Perhaps this will to live in the face of extreme trauma is what makes the ages-old form so universal; the blues perspective allows us to fall to the depths of despair while clinging to hope.
In this sense, PJ Harvey champions the blues on Let England Shake. Her eighth album and first venture into grappling with larger societal and political subject matter is less about personal opinions on policy (whew), but more about the affects on others from large-scale events. In interviews Harvey stresses the universality of the album. Subsequently, the songs are written in the third-person or through characters. The material traverses time and place, and often reveals a mixture of emotions. Love-hate is too simple a description — “familiar” or “human” speaks more to the contradictory feelings we often have when faced with complex challenges.
Within the first minute of the album, the title track declares “England’s dancing days are done.” Though a ham-fisted political interpretation of the line is easy to latch onto (especially after she performed the song in front of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown on U.K. television), the arrangement’s contrasting jaunt makes the song a joyful mourn. Harvey embraces prancing through a “fountain of death” much like a dixieland funeral march or a Day of the Dead celebration. Similarly “England” contains the oft-quoted exultation for (“I love England”) and resignation over (the oft-quoted “bitter taste” line) Harvey’s homeland. Grouped with a sample of a Kurdish woman’s plaintive singing and a spare guitar, the message seems morose. However, the arrangement swells and builds to the song’s closing which emphasizes a “never-failing love for you, England.” Harvey weaves a common thread of humanity amidst the realization of better days being gone.
The material often appears Anglo-centric, at times painfully so. In addition to the aforementioned, “All and Everyone” and “On Battleship Hill” seemingly reference England’s disastrous yet forgotten Landing at Anzac Cove in 1915. However, “The Glorious Land”‘s relatable sense of national malaise is an example of how Harvey reaches out. Against an arrhythmic bugle’s heroic cavalry charge, Harvey calls and responds, “What is the glorious fruit of our land? / Its fruit is deformed children… orphaned children.” The scenario feels less like a Western western and more like a general realization that the 20th century race to be the best is over. Gone are the days of the cavalier race — no nation can honestly claim a spotless prospectus (except North Korea, of course). What buoys the mood is the air of dignity (admittedly a stereotypical English quality) amidst this sea of sorrow. “Goddamn Europeans take me back to England,” Harvey spiels on “Last Living Rose” before recalling nostalgic images like “fog rolling down behind the mountains.” The album thus interrogates the constant push-and-pull of life.
Let England Shake‘s one peculiarity is Harvey’s excruciatingly deliberate process. Over two-and-a-half years she: researched books, films and art; wrote; wrote some more; edited; vocally added melodies to her writing; and finally demoed skeletal arrangements around said writing. The actual recording was the quickest stage as her band of frequent collaborators John Parish, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty helped complete the album in five weeks. This roundabout route to channeling emotions should disqualify the album from a comparison to the blues. Yet after this long journey the album directly channels the human spirit. The songs somehow avoid the weight of over-thinking. Instead they are lucid and filled with rich images (“People throwing dinars / At the belly-dancers”). Harvey’s singing delivers the material by juggling unwieldy emotions with care and empathy. And she makes the experience sound natural — like a true no-brainer.