A Remembrance Day review of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake
“Memory forges the chain of tradition that passes events on from generation to generation.”
-Walter Benjamin, Schriften
“Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live.”
-John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce
“The West’s asleep. Let England shake, weighted down with silent dead. I fear our blood won’t rise again.” With these somber words, a flinty-voiced PJ Harvey begins to taunts a futile “Bobby” whose only real cause or desire is the spread of indifference. It’s an eerie way to begin, especially when you already know what’s coming: a series of grim reflections on the necessary interplay between war and nation. On the opening title track, Harvey’s voice sounds detached—almost ironically so; her vocals playfully dance along to a xylophone melody lifted from Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” If Harvey’s narrator is right to accost the Bobby for his indifferent “smile,” she offers an even more chilling form of apathy when she blankly states, “England’s dancing days are done.” It’s the first of many jarring contradictions that make up one of this year’s best and most thought-provoking albums. It’s also a sobering critique of the West’s continuing, increasingly implausible faith in the idols of history and nation.
On Let England Shake, Harvey combines stark images of war-torn Europe with English literary tropes and an international smattering of sounds and samples. The result is not simply an album about war, nor is it simply a cynical meditation on her native England; Let England Shake has more to do with the practices of representation and remembering that have come to constitute England’s national identity. And, as iconic records go, one would be hard pressed to find a cannier emblem for contemporary ambivalence toward nationalist ideals than Let England Shake. Whereas her earlier releases injected wild evocations of female sexuality into the constellation of early nineties alt-rock, with brash combinations of grunge, post-punk, and blues, Harvey has, since 2008’s White Chalk, turned her attention to England, that most potent producer of national myths and most slippery of imperial expansionists. This shift in focus has been welcomed by the popular music press. Not only has Let England Shake been praised as her most accomplished release in years, it recently won Britain’s Mercury Prize (Harvey is now the only artist to have won this award more than once—she also collected it for her 2000 record, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea).
Unlike her most previous releases, however, Harvey’s pallet here is refreshingly broad, the product no doubt of a staggering amount of research. Her choices of samples in songs like “England” (which features a Kurdish song from Said El Kurdi entitled “Kassem Miro”) and “Written on the Forehead” (which includes a sample of Niney the Observer’s reggae hit from 1970, “Blood and Fire”) fittingly reflect her nation’s continued global reach. Along with references to England’s colonial exploits, several of Harvey’s songs also collect their lyrics from the words of soldiers who fought at Gallipoli in WWI; others draw on Russian folk songs and from gruesome images by artists like Goya. Harvey’s inspirations here are the ever-serious poets of English modernism, writers like Eliot, Auden, Yeats and especially Pinter. Following their lead, her mythologizing combines well-worn scenes of pastoral decay that are repeatedly cast into the grit of the trenches. It’s the juxtaposition of such stark, unsettling lyrics and Harvey’s thoughtful, often beautiful, compositions that makes Let England Shake so compellingly bizarre. As Harvey put it in a recent interview: despite the grave subject matter, “I wanted the music to be full of energy and to be very uplifting and unifying, almost insightful in its creation of energy.”
That Harvey’s decidedly ambivalent album arrived several months before the riots that erupted in London earlier this summer is no more than a coincidence, but I still think it’s a potentially useful one. The strange timeliness of Let England Shake makes it worth considering, not simply as the impressive artistic achievement that it is, but as something representative of the social antagonisms that characterize our present time. I point out this precarious connection mainly because Western media outlets have already made it repeatedly. Indeed, a short while after Harvey had been nominated for the Mercury Prize, riots began to sweep the UK. “I can’t say I was surprised,” she admitted, when asked about the violence that had recently overtaken London’s streets. “It was just a matter of time. . . . People are finding their voices. I think there’s been an awful amount of suppression and censorship. . . . The world is becoming more and more based on moneymaking and less and less actually on supporting a good quality of life for everybody. I think the result that we’re seeing, people getting so frustrated that they feel like they have to rise up, is partly because of this.” While there’s nothing particularly striking about Harvey’s comments, her concession to the inferences of the press (a connection usually avoided by popular musicians who are intent on maintaining the autonomy of their art) elevates her album to something more iconic, and perhaps even more political than she originally anticipated.
Along with other conservative pundits, the British Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that the riots were not political, nor had they anything to do with matters of class or social privilege. While much of the damage that took place was caused by young people who acted out of a sheer desire for destruction, it is important to recognize, as the theologian John Milbank has reminded us, that “if the young and the learning are to blame then the older and the instructing (at every social level) must be all the more to blame.” In other words, we cannot simply accept the limits of a liberal horizon of apolitical intentionality; rather, we must recognize such moments of violence as products of a certain narrative of history that makes claims on our present while it draws the limits of our thinking about the future. It’s a narrative that has blinded us to the fact that future prospects for both young and old (economic, social, environmental, and so on) have never looked so grim, while, at the same time, valorizing constructs like the nation as the key to our deliverance, the conditions of our collective salvation. It’s this difficult truth that Let England Shake asks us to confront.
When the narrator of “Written on the Forehead” questions an old man in Gallipoli she’s met with an observation that feels increasingly appropriate to our time. “He turned to me, / then surveyed the scene, / said, ‘war is here / in our beloved city.’” Although the statement refers to the tragic events of Gallipoli in WWI, it could easily refer to the growing class antagonisms that undercut large centres of trade and commerce, from London to New York. Three tracks later, on “The Words that Maketh Murder” Harvey offers a darkly comic jab at the post-WWI diplomatic hopes that continue to flounder. In what is perhaps the most unsettling song on the album, a first person account of soldiers falling “like lumps of meat, / blown and shot out beyond belief” prefaces the closing refrain from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (“Why don’t I take my problems to the United Nations?”). What makes the song so successful is that fact that Harvey repeatedly calls attention to the role of the listener. “These, these, these are the words!” she stresses again and again. More than a banal observation of complicity, Harvey’s song targets our passive acceptance of history as it’s been delivered through various modes of art, literature and music. How can we observe such horrors and continue to accept their conditions of production? For Harvey to end with the ironic allusion to “Summertime Blues” is, then, all the more appropriate. After moments of unrepresentable violence (“I fear it cannot be explained”), her invocation of the UN parodies a familiar move: that of the Western liberal’s guilty conscience to an outlet that has proven to be both abstract and inadequate. In much the same way, Harvey’s narrator longs to “hear a piano’s grace, / instead of the words that gather pace, / the words that maketh murder.” Where art should provide a similar function of comfort and reconciliation, it can do nothing to quell the memories war and violence. Here, Harvey invites the kind of reflections on memory and history that were made by Walter Benjamin, the Jewish mystic turned historical materialist, as he witnessed the rise of the fascist state. “There is no document of civilization,” writes Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.” Such an awareness of historical representation and transmission seems all the more necessary when (on national holidays like Remembrance Day) we are constantly met with the imperative to “remember.” Much of the media recites this platitude as though the task at hand is self-evident, but Harvey’s album, like the work of Benjamin, fruitfully draws such rituals of remembrance into question. Remember how? What’s at stake in such practices? How do they help construct and inform our current condition?
If Let England Shake reminds us that the work of memory has a political valence, it also reminds us that the ideals of nation and history aren’t so easily tossed off. “I live and I die through England. It leaves sadness,” Harvey sings in a damaged voice on the album’s understated centerpiece. In this way, Harvey recognizes the limits of the contemporary political imagination, an inability to move beyond the cycles of violence that have defined the history of the nation-state. “Remedies were never remedies, not within my reach,” she continues. As Benedict Anderson has argued, the nation is an “imagined community,” a conception that, as Let England Shake so aptly demonstrates, is both limited and sovereign. So potent is this imaginary construct that it is able bind together disparate groups and individuals who share no daily contact in a “horizontal comradeship” that exists despite inequality and exploitation; so persuasive is it that it has led millions to kill and be killed in its name (6-7). While other notions of national culture point to economic necessity or blood lineage, Anderson’s theory identifies the importance of the imagination (at once a mode of narration and a practice of collective memory) that, despite its acknowledged contingency, draws into social and political formations people spread across great distances. Indeed, writes Anderson, “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (3).
For Harvey as for Benjamin, hope is not to be found in the organizing expansions of the nation: not in the comfort of familiar tropes, nor in the inspired representations of national achievements. As such, Let England Shake is not only an appropriate meditation for Remembrance Day; it points to a growing weariness with our current social-political configuration and acknowledges the vital role that cultural practices such as memory have in opening up spaces of potential transformation. As the republican poet John Milton advised his compatriots four centuries ago, one should not forget England’s legacy of teaching nations how to live. Indeed, the growing costs of such lifestyles are becoming more obvious everyday.
Jonathan Dyck is currently completing a master of arts in English literature at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB. He blogs at Church Going.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 253-264.
Harvey, Polly Jean. Let England Shake. Toronto: Universal Island Records Ltd, 2010.
Milton, John. “A Selection from The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.” Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: The Odyssey Press, 1978. 696-715.