I rediscovered PJ Harvey on the morning of June 24, 2016, the day after Britain voted to leave the European Union. I had spent the night before in a giddy frenzy: fervently refreshing live blogs, checking betting odds and placing my blind trust in an obscure psephologist who somehow knew before anyone else — almost once the first results came in from Sunderland — that Brexit won. I had “discovered” Harvey, so to speak, about two years earlier, after reading an essay in The Guardian (I know, how bourgeois of me) on what the author called the “English eerie”: that specific, disquieting aesthetic permeating England’s literature.
PJ Harvey appeared in that essay as an example of the English eerie crossing into music. The title of her 2011 album, “Let England Shake”, intrigued me. So I gave it a listen, and then another, and another, and soon I was singing its praises at brunch in Silliman one Saturday morning.
To say the music struck me on the morning of June 24 would be, I think, an understatement. Rather, it came to me as a clarion call: the only explanation, though it never set out to be one, of how a motley coalition of disaffected Ukippers and sunny-fields Johnsonites had produced one of the most stunning electoral results in postwar history.
“Let England Shake” is, to be sure, an odd record. Only one of its songs approaches a length one might think necessary to explicate a phenomenon as ancient, as complex as the great English nation. They instead flit in and out, vignettes from which the listener must glean what she can. And those gleanings will not be easily quantifiable; no, here the data come in weird incantations, only half-glimpsed on the first six or so go-rounds. The melodies are eerie, Harvey’s voice high and ethereal, drifting over the music rather than participating in it.
The results of June 24 really start to make sense with the second song, “The Last Living Rose.”
A grumpy, squat guitar opens, choosing its few notes carefully, even haltingly, as if Harvey’s brain hadn’t quite given her fingers the right directions. Then comes a line as memorable, and surprising, as any in modern music. “Goddamn Europeans!” Harvey sings, stretching the first two syllables for biting emphasis. “Take me back to beautiful England!” Continental snobbishness, Parisian pretension be damned: Let us return to the land we know.
The song, only two-and-a-third minutes, proceeds from there, and so does the album. The rest of “The Last Living Rose” is a gorgeous and deeply moving tribute to England — an England that no longer exists, but one whose legacy persists in its people’s culture and memory. Images fly here and there, coming quickly and disappearing just as fast: the fog rolling down over the mountains of Cumbria; the graveyards dotting the shore, watched over by the ghosts of sea-captains whose ships wallowed on the shoals; a lonely walk through a London at once Dickensian and Boschite; books ripped from monasteries’ shelves by the Vikings, or perhaps the Tudors. Through it all, through the damp and the grey, runs the River Thames, flowing way to its magnificent estuary — “glistening like gold, hastily sold for nothing — for nothing.”
Listen enough times and the wonder of this album floats to the surface. This is a work of staggering genius, buoyed by a deep sensuousness, something so far beyond the musical mainstream that only a truly remarkable artist could have conjured it. Harvey maintains a deep and effective connection with the visual element throughout her twelve songs: “The Glorious Land,” for instance, opens with a quiet and pure melody, until a trumpet’s hunting call breaks the calm, and you can almost see the dogs bounding forward through the brush. Her ghostlike wailing on the simply titled “England” evokes winds and clouds rolling over the ridgeline into the valley, injecting a sense of doom into a bright and sunny day among the heather. The darkly comic, that invaluable English quality, is present, too: “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” is the repeated refrain in “The Words That Maketh Murder,” and one of the funniest lines ever given a melody. “Let England Shake,” then, is a maelstrom of culture, of images, of heritage and inheritance. Harvey reaches into the deep wellspring of Englishness and pulls out whatever she finds, like a hoarder rummaging through her house’s vast stores.
The standout moments, though, come when Harvey pans away from the playing fields of Eton and onto the grounds where those traditions perished. “All & Everyone,” coming about halfway through, brings us to the killing fields of World War I, to the Somme and Gallipoli, names whose significance need no explication. This is a violent, pulsating song, with barely a melody at its center, more a steady building of tension as the men wait between trench walls lined with their brothers’ corpses. The overarching futility is beyond evident — “Death hung in the smoke and clung to four hundred acres of useless beachfront,” comes as a scathing indictment of Churchill’s farcical Eastern adventure. The tension builds and builds, strings mounting and drum toiling, the moment’s cinematic drama bold and stark, until suddenly zero-hour comes, and a welcome release sweeps over. Only it’s not a release; it’s the sun breaking through, as at Austerlitz, giving its final blessing to the men about to die.
But it is England to which we return, England that gives the songs meaning, hope, pride. The pastoral anchors this album, keeps it tied firmly to the land from which it arose — from which England arose. Harvey’s voice inhabits the rolling fields of the West Country, of Devon and Somerset, the sort of landscapes indelibly associated with the word “pleasant.” The music fits that bucolic land perfectly: undulating, pulsating apparently forward but to nowhere in particular, and imbued with a deep humility, a welcome lack of pretension. When I say this album is English, that it is indeed the finest musical encapsulation of England, that is what I mean — that it is timeless music, a journey not to a past age but to a better one. It seems to arise, natural and spontaneously, from the land itself, as if the music always existed, hidden somewhere in the fields, just waiting for someone to pluck it out. PJ Harvey did just that, and we are all the better for it.