PJ Harvey's Let England Shake

by on Mar.31, 2011

Is anyone else as obsessed as I am with PJ Harvey’s new album Let England Shake?  It is a soundtrack to Western decadence.  It is historical poetry about what happens when empires fatten, slacken, and die.  It is necropolitical.  A war necropastoral.  In “The Glorious Land,” the album offers the only possible caption to the photos of dead bodies taken by the Kill Team of American soldiers who murdered, among others, an innocent 15-year-old Afghan and kept his severed finger:

“What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is deformed children.
What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is deformed children.
What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is orphaned children.
What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is deformed children.”

“Oh, America!  Oh, England!” Harvey sings in the song’s chorus, confusing and dissolving colony and motherland while spreading nostalgia and disgust.  Other lyrics are similarly rich with irony, doubleness, ambivalence:  “Goddamn Europeans!  Take me back to beautiful England”; “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?”; “Pack up your troubles, let’s head out/to the fountain of death/& splash about/swim back and forth/& laugh out loud.”  Even when she sings about soldiers falling like “lumps of meat,” Harvey’s voice and the autoharp sound like petals.  Gone is the state of exception that demarcates when and where violence operates in the service of civilization.  In these songs, no matter how lovely they seem to the ear, or in light of how lovely they can seem, “death is everywhere […] now, and now, and now.”

13 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I really like this. I’ll have to check it out. The confusion of home/away/colony/empire seems to foreground the membranes and intrication in an interesting way./Johannes

  2. Lucas de Lima

    Totally. I was just watching an interview where she says she drew from contemporary Afghani and Iraqi poetry to write the lyrics. But also British war poetry, whose influence makes the album even more (purposefully) confused and anachronistic.

  3. megan

    YES. i am equally obsessed with this album and love what you say about it here. her lyrics are SO ambivalent, and her delivery of them is so brilliantly deadpan (often doubled with screeching). deliberately, grotesquely naive-sounding in parts, elsewhere hostile. very much a furtherance of the dead-ghost-girl voice she uses so much in WHITE CHALK – but this voice seems outside gender, multiple and choral.

  4. Johannes

    I’m listening to it right now. It’s great.


  5. Rodrigo Fernández Abarno

    I believe this album references the very heart of darkness Joseph Conrad explored in his novel. There is an oligarchic line that stretches through Babylon, Rome, Venice and England. It is this predatory geopolitics of cruelty that Harvey’s album explores. “Cruel nature” wins when any oligarchic principle of social organization prevails; social darwinism is the biggest hoax and imposition since Atlantic slavery.

  6. Josef Horáček

    The blurring of the lines between the colony and the metropolis seems particularly interesting to me. Postcolonial ruling classes who adopt the mindset of the former colonizer; the metropolis infiltrated by immigrants from the colonies, not to mention those who are colonized at home.

    Add to this mix former-colonies-turned-colonizers and former colonial powers that weathered their decline and now languish in the glow of their former power, not quite ready to let go (“Oh, America! Oh, England!”). This sense of history places all of us at all ends of the power spectrum simultaneously, with violence as the only constant.

    A thick and ambivalent voice is indeed called for. Must check it out.

  7. Lucas de Lima

    Megan, yes, aside from her Englishness she totally succeeds at suspending her particularities in this album. The perspective does seem multiple, multiplied, yet strangely coherent as a portrait of a popular imagination. The voice of the people, the voice of God, as they say, though this is hardly Whitman’s chest-thumping “I contain multitudes.”

    Rodrigo, that’s a very interesting line of thought I hadn’t considered. I kept thinking about “cruel nature” referring to the savagery of natives in the colonies.

    Josef, let us know what you think about the album if you are so inclined.


  8. Rodrigo

    Cruel nature is human regression, the eclipse of our reason and creativity, the triumph of empiricism and sensual priorities.

  9. Lucas de Lima

    The more I think about it the more I want to resist a stable meaning to “cruel nature,” especially given Harvey’s ambivalence throughout. Not sure her lyrics can be decoded this way. Though I don’t think the album as a whole calls for a return to reason as such, if rationalism is part of the logic that brings about empires and wars.

  10. Rodrigo

    No stable meanings here. Reason itself is something only dimly understood. Most people mistakenly think empirical categorization is reason. Notice that Empire and empiricism share the same root. Reason could never be the methodology behind slavery and intra-species violence. Reason has nothing to do with logic nor propositional statements.

    The title of Harvey’s new album, “Let England Shake,” is clearly evocative of empire. “The Glorious Land” references wartime battle. But the modern empire is one whose battles are waged for control of our minds. Google Edward Bernays and you will see how the methodology of empire and warfare was used to create our modern consciousness.

    So, rather than a definitive decodification, or fixing of meanings, think of my comments as an evocation. Rather than stabilizing meanings, I just aim at adding depth to other interpretations.

  11. Lucas de Lima

    Even though I still hate thinking about reason, I agree. De acuerdo!


  12. Rodrigo

    I gather from reading the other comments that people still maintain a geographic distribution of Empire. The Empire is no longer geographic. It is digital and psychological; it is the very substance of our consciousness. One can only distinguish metropolis/colony within the screen of our minds, where the Empire projects its nightmares.

  13. Rodrigo

    We have been educated to mistrust reason. We have been led to completely misunderstand what it really is. Obscurantism reigns, and there is a Reason behind it, as it is a methodology of control and indoctrination. We have been lulled by demonic incantations, by Satanic Verses. Diabolical is the overthrow of reason by monstrous ideas of celebrated perversion and ecstatic abandonment. This is regression; rather than decline, it is the very height of Empire. I reject Nietzsche: Rome was consolidated and refined barbarism. It was a pyramidal, hierarchical monstrosity, an example of humanity at its very worst.