Artists Of The Year

CMU Artists Of The Year 2011: PJ Harvey

By | Published on Tuesday 20 December 2011

PJ Harvey

It was apparent from the first listen of PJ Harvey’s eighth album, ‘Let England Shake’, that it was going to be one of the year’s best, and one that would dominate December’s end of year lists. Released in February, it has since swept up numerous accolades, including Harvey’s second Mercury Prize win, recognised for its brilliant songwriting and the sheer amount of work that went into making it.

Harvey, as you’ll know doubt have read countless times already, worked on the album for over two years, but much of that time was spent researching the wars past and present which make up the subject matter of its lyrics. And that those words were as relevant when ‘Let England Shake’ was finally released as when she was first moved to write them by news images of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, only shows what a necessary album it was, linking the horrors of wars together in a timeline as a reminder of what never changes.

But ‘Let England Shake’ is not a political album, or even a protest album, as such. Judgement is always left to the listener. Harvey takes on a neutral role, allowing the voices of the characters that embody her songs to tell their stories. They’re stories that often deal in graphic imagery, but also focus heavily on the emotional effect of war. ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ opens with the line “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget” and speaks of seeing “soldiers fall like lumps of meat” and “arms and legs … in the trees”, but amongst this drops in that this person is “longing to see a woman’s face”.

The amount of work and attention to lyrical detail that went into this album is undoubtedly part of what has drawn so much praise to it, but what is also striking is that almost 20 years after the release of her debut album ‘Dry’, Harvey is as creative and innovative as she has ever been. ‘Let England Shake’ doesn’t sound like anything she has ever done before. It’s as if she started again from scratch. In fact, she almost did, choosing to write much of the album on an instrument she hadn’t used before (the autoharp), changing her singing voice, and recording in a more fluid and less regimented style than on previous records.

Just prior to setting up in a Dorset church for five weeks to record the album in April 2010, Harvey appeared on BBC One’s ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ to perform the album’s title track. Still in demo form, it was a full minute shorter than the final version, and was performed on the autoharp with only a loop culled from a version of ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ for backing. Although removed in the finished recording, the stunted swing of that strange loop can still be heard in its rhythm.

That demo may have had slightly more conventional sounds beaten into it during recording, but there are plenty of other elements that still divide opinion, even amongst the album’s most fervent proponents. Most notable is the cavalry horn that tears through what is one of the album’s otherwise most perfect songs, ‘The Glorious Land’. Completely detached from the music, many of those who were given preview copies assumed it was some sort of anti-piracy tool that would be removed from the retail version.

Some questioned why Harvey would wilfully vandalise such a brilliant song. But in the context of the album, it seems only fitting that the sound of war should storm across it without regard for what else might be happening at the time. And despite this distraction, it’s still impossible not to hear one of the album’s bleakest lyrics: “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”.

Which pulls us back to the central themes of the album, fittingly after I tried to get away from them. Harvey has said that she didn’t want this to be a preachy album, and it’s not, but it’s impossible to listen and not be drawn into the words she sings so vividly. It may not be an overtly political record, but it’s an album influenced by something deeply political and even if you attempt to be a passive listener, something – perhaps a chorus, or just one line – will grab you and force you to think. You don’t hear albums that are completely impossible to ignore very often, even after a year of regular listening, because they are near impossible to write.

This feeling was reflected in live performances following the album’s release. On one side of the stage, the band stood together with their equipment pushed up around them in a semi-circle, looking like three friends just enjoying playing together. On the other side of the stage stood Harvey, dressed in a long black (or sometimes white) dress and headdress, alone, holding that autoharp with nothing but a black backdrop behind her, almost swallowing her. It was almost as if she didn’t want to be associated with what could be seen as the fun part of performance while she delivered those lyrics. Sure, the band could get on with enjoying themselves over there, but she was going to stand over here, pretty much motionless, and get on with it.

When she wasn’t performing, a collection of short films created by war photographer Seamus Murphy toured various UK festivals this summer. Further exploring the themes of the album, England and Englishness, the films were recently released on DVD, but can also be viewed on YouTube here. You can watch the video for ‘The Glorious Land’ below.

Find more of CMU’s ten Artists Of The Year here.