5 March 2011

Let England Shake

Since I’m at work on a Saturday, and the library is not very busy, I thought I’d vent about the issue that is conflicting me so at the moment. I genuinely cannot get enough of PJ Harvey’s new album Let England Shake but every time I allow myself to get excited about it or proclaim to myself that it’s the best album of 2011 so far, I can’t help but feel guilty because of the niggling feeling that the album is drenched too heavy in nationalism. The title itself sounds like it could be the slogan on an EDL poster. I am giving her highness PeeJ the benefit of the doubt, but I’ll highlight some of the lyrics (thanks to alwaysontherun.net – which is a brilliant lyrics website) just to support my claim.

I am also aware that it’s risky to assume that the voice is necessarily the voice of the singer, they’re just songs after all, so she could be assuming a character, or voicing things she doesn’t necessarily whole-heartedly support/believe in. She has in the past ranted at readings of her music being too autobiographical.

“Goddamn' Europeans
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey, damp filthiness of ages
And battered books
And fog rolling down behind the mountains
And on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains” (From The Last Living Rose)

this song could easily just be about reclaiming a national identity that has been lost, by harking back to romanticised clichés of “battered books” and “fog”, but it definitely seems to be blaming people from Outside of England for this change of identity, and at no point seems to acknowledge that it might be a change for the better?

There is equally as strong a case to argue that the album is essentially anti-war:

“How is our glorious country ploughed
Not by iron ploughs
Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet
Feet, marching” (from The Glorious Land)

“I've seen and done things I want to forget
I've seen soldiers fell like lumps of meat
Blown and shot out beyond belief
Arms and legs were in the trees” (from The Words that Maketh Murder)

“Louis was my dearest friend
Fighting in the Anzac trench
Louis ran forward from the line
I never saw him again”
“If I was asked I'd tell
The colour of the earth that day
It was dull and browny-red
"The colour of blood", I'd say” (from The Colour of the Earth)

and so on...

But, even if it is anti-war, the tone of it doesn’t seem to suggest our country is at all responsible. I MIGHT be reading too deeply into the lyrics, and might be completely misreading them.

“People throwing dinars at the belly-dancers”
“He turned to me and then surveyed the scene
Said, “War is here in our beloved city”
(Let it burn, let it burn burn burn)” (from Written on the Forehead)

This Glorious Land opens with a military bugle, that instantly sets my hairs on end given my aversion to anything military.

The whole song ‘England’ unsettles me, it seems like a bitter lovesong to England that is distorted by far-eastern singing and instrumentation. It’s definitely the song that I feel most uncomfortable with.

I think the thing that bothers me is I find it difficult to ever consider soldiers as victims, especially not in recent wars. And as gritty and bleak as this album is at times, it’s also definitely romantic as well though.

I’ve just read several reviews of it online, and I seem to have entirely missed the point of it. A particularly well-written review on the Independent website says: “Polly Harvey offers a portrait of her homeland as a country built on bloodshed and battle, not so much a police state as a nation in thrall to military endeavour, however impotent and wasteful that has become. A place paralysed by fascination with past victories, hidebound by the ghosts of an imperial past.” Which makes me feel much better about it, and other reviews seem to agree that it is about mourning a country bloodied by war and imperialism rather than romanticising it or even celebrating it.

It’s just very frustrating that had Morrissey made this exact album, (and at times, the jangly distant guitars sound quite Smiths-esque) he would have been berated for its nationalist undertones (or overtones), even though it’s fairly obvious that as his liberal views are entirely cancelled out by his more right wing views, he has become someone that was considered so political he has become apolitical. Yet I know nothing about PJ Harvey’s politics really, but people are quick to say she’s just a simple west country gal. She is however, reportedly, into hunting, which worries and unsettles me.

UGH maybe I’m being overdramatic, but it’s really halting my enjoyment of the album. That said I do think it’s her strongest yet- even more so than White Chalk which I never thought I’d ever catch myself saying. Maybe I just need to stop thinking and enjoying the bloody music.

Also, I’ve just reread this, and it barely makes sense. Tante pis.

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