LET THE WORLD SHAKE: THE LYRICAL ACTIVISM OF PJ HARVEY

by Jake Reynolds

On October 2nd, 2011, PJ Harvey appeared on The Andrew Marr Show alongside David Cameron. As soon as Marr mentions that Harvey’s then-latest album, the glorious Let England Shake, tackles ‘a big political subject, in this case Britain and war’, Cameron grits his teeth and asserts that he is ‘very keen’ on the album. Harvey’s polite laugh is the kind we all offer when confronted with a mildly xenophobic taxi driver.

‘Do you think they [the government] are doing alright on culture?’ Marr asks. At this point, Harvey gently and articulately condemns the ‘100% cuts’ in her home county of Somerset. She laments the notion that economic growth in Tory Britain is viewed as the only worthwhile goal. Bizarrely, Cameron awkwardly nods, as if a brief and sudden shot of humanity has temporarily penetrated his reptilian hide. She is, of course, swiftly and patronisingly cut off. ‘You’d better go and get your guitar ready,’ Marr says, clapping his hands together. And so the camera crops her out and focuses back on the men in suits.

But if they think her views on the state of contemporary Britain can be stifled so easily, they haven’t heard her music. ‘God damn Europeans,’ she sings sarcastically. ‘Take me back to beautiful England.’ In this song, ‘The Last Living Rose’, ‘beautiful England’ is home to ‘damp filthiness’ and ‘stinking alleys’.

 

In fact, as an album Let England Shake – which made Harvey the first and only musician to win the prestigious Mercury Prize twice – casts both light and shadows on England. Through the course of the album, the lyrics concern the futility of war (‘some of us returned / And some of us did not’) and its effect upon England. In one particularly haunting moment, Harvey asks ‘What is the glorious fruit of our land?’ and responds to herself, detached and frank, with ‘The fruit is deformed children.’

But if they think her views on the state of contemporary Britain can be stifled so easily, they haven’t heard her music.

It’s good to see, then, that if PJ Harvey and David Cameron were asked to join Andrew Marr for his Sunday morning chat in 2016, the Prime Minister would perhaps be just as uncomfortable with her new lyrical content. And though her upcoming album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, appears to cast its net a little wider than this sceptred isle, what little we know suggests that the provocative and challenging themes of Let England Shake are still present. In ‘The Wheel’, Harvey laments the disappearance of 28,000 children. The song churns through a five-minute cycle, enchanting the listener with repeated motifs and a hypnotic hand-clap rhythm. It feels like a cog in a machine, with Harvey’s voice taking on the machine itself from within.

PJ-Harvey-The-Hollow-of-the-Hand-by-Seamus-Murphy-2015-8

( PJ Harvey at The Hollow of the Hand © Seamus Murphy )

PJ Harvey is one of the great lyrical activists of contemporary Britain, and deserves recognition alongside the resurgence of grime in the last couple of years as well as the emergence (in terms of popularity, that is) of groups such as Sleaford Mods and Young Fathers. However, you won’t see Sleaford Mods invited on The Andrew Marr Show any time soon. Somehow, lyrics like ‘Boris [Johnson] on a bike, quick, knock the cunt over!’ might not be suitable for the Sunday morning current affairs show. It’s perhaps a little too ‘edgy’.

PJ Harvey is one of the great lyrical activists of contemporary Britain, and deserves recognition alongside the resurgence of grime

PJ Harvey, however, is a different case. Releasing albums to acclaim since 1992’s Dry, Harvey is a much-respected and admired musician and lyricist in the industry. She can’t be shrugged off as easily by figures of authority. While duos like Sleaford Mods can be – and sadly are, by many – disregarded because of their aggression and profanity (which is a little too reminiscent of working class ire for most politicians, one would assume), PJ Harvey is plain-spoken, open, and quietly interrogative in her lyrics. Although only two songs have been released ahead of the release of The Hope Six Demolition Project, their titles alone point to contemporary politics and political issues: ‘The Ministry of Defence’ and ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ are among the most explicit.

 

Visiting Kosovo for the music video shoot for ‘The Wheel’, collaborator and director Seamus Murphy mentions ‘the enormous refugee crisis in Europe’. Five years after her album meditating on the causes and effects of war, Harvey’s new album comes in the midst of – and was written during – the devastating refugee crisis and its ongoing catastrophic mishandling by various world leaders.

After over twenty years in the business, Harvey’s music is still reflective of its time. Opening track ‘The Community of Hope’, which name-checks the album’s title with reference to a run-down community following the poorly-coordinated HOPE VI programme of the US Housing and Urban Development Administration, laments ‘the highway of death and destruction’, a school that ‘looks like a shit hole’, and ‘a deli called M. L. K.’ The song ends with Harvey singing, ‘They’re gonna build a Walmart here’ eight times, with the word ‘here’ drawn out with a sting that at once conjures sadness, anger, and farce. The song has already ruffled the feathers of some politicians. Yet Harvey is never overly didactic; her job isn’t to persuade her listeners through the lens of her opinion but to paint a picture, to educate, to inform. What she does so successfully is relate what she sees – what is happening in the world – with intelligence, power, and clarity.

Harvey is never overly didactic; her job isn’t to persuade her listeners through the lens of her opinion but to paint a picture, to educate, to inform.

The Hope Six Demolition Project was recorded live, in public, as part of a museum exhibition. In fact, it was recorded behind a sheet of one-way glass. Members of the public were invited to watch the recording process. It’s a fitting metaphor for Harvey’s music: open, inviting, and more transparent than any of the institutions her songs so often challenge.

The Hope Six Demolition Project is released in the UK on April 15.

Featured image © Maria Mochnacz

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