The Words that Maketh Murder

A Remembrance Day review of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake

Jonathan Dyck

“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. Continue reading