For her eighth studio album, Let England Shake (2011), PJ Harvey looked to war for inspiration and in particular, the war in Afghanistan, which Britain was heavily involved in at the time of the album’s writing and recording. Harvey also took inspiration from past conflicts, most notably the two World Wars. Of the album’s subject matter, Harvey told Uncut Magazine in January 2015: “I’ve always felt that I’m affected by the world, by the way we treat each other, by the way different countries treat each other”.
Let England Shake was not the first time that Harvey had spoken about war in her music. On her 1996 album with John Parish, who also collaborated on Let England Shake, Dance Hall at Louse Point (credited to John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey), she included the song Civil War Correspondent.
At this point in time, Harvey never explained her lyrics and they were, more so than ever, left open to broad interpretation. One could assume that the civil war mentioned in the song is the 1992 – 1996 Afghan Civil War, a phase of the war in Afghanistan which had been raging since 27th April 1978. The war in Afghanistan had started when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in a military coup, known as the Saur Revolution. Most of Afghanistan subsequently experienced uprisings against the PDFA government.
In December 1979, the Soviet War in Afghanistan began with the aim of replacing the existing communist government. The mujahideen, Afghanistan’s resistance forces, fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Some factions received support from the US, with the Pakistani ISI serving as the US middleman, and Saudi Arabia. The Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in February 1989. The Soviet-backed Afghan communist government survived for three more years until the fall of Kabul in 1992.
In 1992, Afghan political parties agreed on the Peshawar Accords, a peace and power-sharing agreement which established the post-communist Islamic State of Afghanistan after the resignation of communist President Mohammad Najibullah and appointed an interim government. Militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar opposed the agreement and with Pakistani support started a bombardment campaign against Kabul, signalling the beginning of the 1992 – 1996 Afghan Civil War. In addition, three militias who had been able to occupy some suburbs of Kabul engaged in a violent war against each other. Other than Kabul, other cities to witness violent fighting included Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar.
Despite these assumptions that the civil war of which Harvey speaks in Civil War Correspondent is probably the Afghan Civil War, it is left open to interpretation. Therefore, the narrator of the song could easily be a correspondent in any war, making the song a stark reminder that all war is the same: Each war has its casualties and its devastating effects on those involved, whether on the frontline or witnessing the atrocities from a journalist standpoint. “Word leave my heart dry, Words can’t save life, Love has no place here, No joy, no tears” sings Harvey emotionally on the song. Perhaps the correspondent is actually Harvey herself as opposed to a media correspondent, a songwriter attempting to put into words what she sees through the media. “I shout but he don’t hear, Just put down the page, Darling spare me your tears, Dear God please send me the light of day, I can feel his, Heart wired, Heart like, Gunfire …” continues Harvey in the guise of a war correspondent watching a soldier losing hope in the face of the brutality he is facing. By the end of Civil War Correspondent, the soldier’s mind and spirit has been consumed by the war and he cannot escape the gunfire anymore than he can escape his own heartbeat.
On her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey had been inspired by her love of New York City. Take for example, Good Fortune, with its references to China Town, “In China Town, hung-over, you showed me just what I could do” and Little Italy, “When we walked through Little Italy, I saw my reflection come right off your face”.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea also includes the highly prophetic song One Line, which includes the lyrics, “I’m watching from the wall, As in the streets we fight, This World all gone to war, All I need is you tonight”.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea won the Mercury Music Prize, the ceremony for which was held on September 11th, 2001, the infamous day as the terrorist attacks on the USA. Harvey was in Washington DC and had witnessed the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon from her hotel room window. When she was announced as the winner, she made her acceptance speech by telephone, saying, “It has been a very surreal day. All I can say is thank you very much, I am absolutely stunned”.
Following the September 11 attacks, the USA announced its War on Terror, a term coined by President George W. Bush. The USA, backed by its close allies, including Britain, invaded Afghanistan. The war followed the Afghan Civil War phase (1996 – 2001) and public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and deny it a safe base in operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power.
Additonally, in 2003, the USA, with assistance from the United Kingdom, invaded Iraq, signalling the start of the Iraq War, which aimed to and succeeded in toppling the government of Saddam Hussein. The conflict continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraq government. The USA and United Kingdom officially withdrew from the country in the 2011, the year of Let England Shake’s release but the insurgency and various dimensions of the civil armed conflict still continue.
After witnessing the horror of the September 11 attacks which sparked off the Afghanistan War firsthand, it is no wonder that Harvey would at some point in her career feel compelled to compose more songs pertaining to war, this time using the subject of war to create a concept album. Harvey began writing the lyrics for the album before setting the words to music. She has cited the poetry of Harold Pinter and T.S. Eliot as influences, as well as the artwork of Salvador Dali and Francisco de Goya and the music of The Doors, The Pogues and The Velvet Underground. She also researched the history of conflict, including the Gallipoli Campaign, and read modern-day testimonies from civilians and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of the musical content on Let England Shake, Harvey makes full use of the autoharp which she began to play in concert some years prior to working on the album. She told local newspaper Bridport News in 2001: “I was really enjoying this different, enormous, wide breath of sound that the autoharp gives. It’s quite a delicate sound, but it’s also like having an entire orchestra at your fingertips. I began by writing quite a lot on the autoharp, and then slowly as time went by, (because this album was written over two and a half years) … my writing started moving into experimenting with different guitars, and using different sound applications, ones that I had never really experimented with”.
In order to tell the tales of war which make up Let England Shake, Harvey adopted a very different vocal style to that used on previous works. Harvey commented in her 2011 interview with Bridport News that “I couldn’t sing [the songs] in a rich mature voice without it sounding completely wrong. So I had to slowly find the voice, and this voice started to develop, almost taking on the role of a narrator”.
Let England Shake is a wonderfully executed suite of war-inspired songs. The title of the album and its opening track can be interpreted in two ways with respect to the two different periods of time which inspired the songs. Firstly the opening line of the title track, “The West’s asleep, let England shake” refers to the past, before World War One, when England appeared to be a perfect epoch for peace and prosperity. The Western world was asleep, overconfident in its own power, economy and technological development. The brutality of both World Wars proved the opposite and England was one of the countries which suffered the cruel and tragic consequences. Secondly, the same line also refers to the present, where we find Harvey pondering as to whether England is now, once again, overconfident and whether the Western world is, once again, on the brink of collapse. Therefore, based on historical evidence, England will, indeed shake again. Interestingly, shortly after the release of Let England Shake, a series of riots occurred across England, breaking the deceptive state of calm.
Additionally, Let England Shake features the lines “I fear our blood won’t rise again, Won’t rise again”, an observation about death. In this line, Harvey is saying that if our blood doesn’t rise again, from the graves that contain our corpses, then there is no hope. The line also poses an attack against the teachings of Christianity, which has justified the most horrendous actions against humanity throughout history, such as Crusades, Inquisition, paedophile networks and torture practices. Christianity states that we are going to be saved by Jesus after death and this life is not a real one, for only in resurrection will we be reunited with divinity and eternal life.
Further into the album, we find the song This Glorious Land, the third track and the second single to be taken from the album. The lyrics of This Glorious Land refer to the military and the ongoing Afghan War, told from the perspective of the locals in a country invaded by England and America (“Oh, America, Oh, England”). The song tells of how such interventionism often exploits those being invaded, removing their culture and ability to be a contender in the world economy: “How is our glorious country ploughed, Not by iron plows, Our land is plowed by tanks and feet, Feet, Marching”. The people of the invaded country are also often forced to exploit their own children in order to survive. The lyrics in the final refrain allude to the disastrous effects of war: “What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is deformed children, What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is orphaned children”. Whilst the song was primarily inspired by the conflict in Afghanistan, it could also refer to the bombing of Japan by America and Britain during the Second World War.
The fourth track on the album and its first single, The Words That Maketh Murder, is also about the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan as well as the World Wars, the First World War in particular. The lyrics also criticise diplomacy, particularly in the final refrain, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” which, with dark humour, finds the subject of the song, who has experienced the unimaginable whilst involved in the conflict such as “soldiers fall[ing] like lumps of meat”, looking to the international peacekeeping body for help. The refrain is based on a lyric from Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues (1958), where he sings, “I’m gonna take my problems to the United Nations”.
The reference to the United Nations places the song’s setting in the modern day, i.e. the Afghanistan War, as opposed to the First World War, as the United Nations did not exist until 1945. The League of Nations, the United Nations predecessor, was regarded as powerless and content to allow the strong to bully the weak and, two decades after the First World War, failed to stop the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Nations has been slightly more successful but has also often ignored, as recently as the Invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.
In the lead up to the catchy and beautifully conceived refrain, Harvey paints a bleak picture of battlefield carnage. “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget, I’ve seen soldiers falling like lumps of meat, Blown and shot out beyond belief, Arms and legs were in the trees”. The lyric “Longing to see a woman’s face” finds the subject of the song missing the comforts of home, perhaps his wife or just female company. “Instead of words that gather pace” is likely to refer to the Treaties and threats that tipped Europe into the First World War in 1914. After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is Sarajevo, all of the world’s major powers were pulled into the First World War one by one.
The chorus of the song, “The words that maketh murder, These, these, these are the words, The words that maketh murder …” are a further attack on the diplomacy which surrounds war. By referring to war tribunals as “The words that maketh murder”, Harvey is discussing the way in which killing on the battlefield is seen as legitimate but when investigated by war tribunals, it can be classified as a war crime. Whilst the work that the soldiers carry out is important, killing, regardless of circumstances, is still murder.
Following the first chorus, we find the line “I’ve seen a corporal whose nerves were shot”, a reference to Post Traumatic Stress (shell-shock), which is a common ailment suffered by soldiers who have fought in wars. The line “I’ve seen flies swarming everyone” and later lines “Death lingering stunk, Flies swarming everyone, Over the whole summit peak, Flesh quivering in the heat” refer to the way in which war was often conducted in extremely unsanitary conditions and disease was as big a threat to the soldiers’ survival as the opposing side. The repetition of lyrics about soldiers falling is most likely an expression of shell-shock related flashbacks.
The video for The Words That Maketh Murder’s single release in January 2011 was directed by Seamus Murphy, who also created videos for the other eleven tracks on Let England Shake. Harvey contacted Murphy after seeing his “A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan” exhibition in London in 2008. In her interview with Bridport News, she said that she “wanted to speak to him more about his experiences being there in Afghanistan”. After an initial meeting, a collaboration grew with Murphy taking charge of promotional photographs for the film in July 2010 and completing the promotional videos in January 2011. The resulting videos were screened at various UK festivals between the 14th and 17th July 2011 and released on the DVD Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy on the 12th December 2011.
The video for The Words That Maketh Murder features Harvey practicing the song on the autoharp. The opening scene features lights shining through a car windshield, followed by imagery of warfare such as a soldier walking through an open field. Later in the video, the soldier is shown dead in the middle of the road during the lyric “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat”. Additionally, the video shows soldiers dressed in formal uniform and children playing a war-related video game. Other scenes show a funfair and slips from a rock concert as well as a ballroom scene filmed in Blackpool, a still from which was used as the single’s artwork.
Let England Shake was named Album of the Year in no less than 16 different publications, including Uncut, Mojo, NME and The Guardian. In September 2011, ten years after winning the Mercury Music prize for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, she won the Mercury Music Prize for Let England Shake. This win marked the first time in the award’s history that it had been awarded to the same artist twice.