PJ Harvey’s universal soldier

You know, I wrote Gladiator 2. Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott read the Proposition and asked me to write Gladiator, and I did write that. And luckily it was so completely unacceptable they didn’t even ask me to do rewrites. It wasn’t makeable. I wanted to write an anti-war film and use the gladiator as a raging war machine. It ended up in Vietnam and the Pentagon. He died in the first one so he comes back as the eternal warrior. It was just this really wacked out script. — Nick Cave to this writer, 2006

I was wanting to show the way history repeats itself, really and so in some ways it doesn’t matter what time it was, because this endless cycle goes on and on and on. — Polly Harvey to NME’s Emily Mackay, 2011

The first time I heard an advance copy of PJ Harvey’s extraordinary new album Let England Shake last December I knew I loved it but I didn’t really understand it. It looks like a message album but the message is occluded and I’ve been puzzling it over ever since. There is so much meaning to unpack and untangle, and even the simplest claims you could make (“It’s about England”; “Its about war”) are problematic. This is the record you get when a very clever, conscientious songwriter sweats to find a new way to deal with very old material.

War songs are about as old as war itself, whether celebrating the righteousness of combat, mourning the cost or simply longing to return home safely. What more is there to say about it? It’s sometimes necessary; it’s always awful. Hence Let England Shake is an anti-war record only in the sense that any vivid description of conflict will be anti-war — it contains no pacifist truisms. Harvey has always been interested in primal urges and the violence that people do to each other; now it is on a political scale.

Harvey has described her role here as bearing witness. “I know there are war poets and war artists and I thought well, where are the war songwriters?” she told NME. But she isn’t observing war firsthand like those poets and artists, nor even (with a couple of exceptions) wars within her lifetime. She is turning to the existing vocabulary of war and creating a collage of different perspectives in a way that reminded me of something former poet laureate Andrew Motion said on Radio 4’s Start the Week on Monday:

I am very aware when I’m reading war poems written by people who haven’t directly had experience of fighting on the frontline that however good their intentions are… there is a danger that they may aggrandise themselves by associating with the subject if they leave it purely and simply in their words… And I thought that by interviewing soldiers, reading books in which soldiers give their witness, and accommodating in my own words some of their thoughts and words, then I might get around that difficulty.

So I disagree with the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere Jones when he calls This Glorious Land “a thunderously obvious protest song”. The language is surely meant to sound blunt and ancient. As the album credits acknowledge, some of her lyrics (All and Everyone, The Colour of the Earth) were taken from the words of soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, others (The Glorious Land, In the Dark Places) from Russian folk songs, still others (The Words That Maketh Murder) from Goya’s brutal series of prints, The Disasters of War. Let England Shake is perhaps not so much about war as modes of representing war, and what they tell us about the endless, bloody cycle of history. The different voices cluster into a single combatant: what Nick Cave calls the eternal warrior and Buffy Sainte-Marie called the universal soldier.

The more you notice, and the more Harvey reveals in interviews, the more clues you find embedded in the record. She has already talked about finding inspiration in Harold Pinter and Jez Butterworth, Dali and Kubrick, the Doors and the Pogues, memoirs of the First World War and blogs from Iraq and Afghanistan, folk songs from Russia, Iraq, Cambodia and Vietnam. For example, the belly dancers in the opening line of Written on the Forehead are taken from New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid’s account of everyday life during the occupation of Iraq, Night Draws Near.

Her quotations and samples are often unusually intrusive — voices from the past poking through like restless spirits, reminders of what went wrong.  (The first time I heard the jarring bugle call on This Glorious Land I thought I had another browser window open.) “All of the samples I used add meaning to the song, and the lyrics I’m singing,” says Harvey. It’s educational tracing them to the source. The voice snaking through England is from Said El Kurdi’s Kassem Miro, a Kurdish song recorded by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company (later EMI) on a talentspotting trip to the British Mandate of Mesopotamia just a few years before it became independent Iraq in 1932. The apocalyptic rasta chant on Written on the Forehead is Niney the Observer’s 1970 hit Blood and Fire, the first of many doom-laden releases as Jamaica plunged further into social and economic chaos.

The title track’s melody from the Four Lads’ 1953 novelty hit Istanbul (Not Constantinople) takes us back to the 1920s, when the Republic of Turkey, rising from the ashes of the defeated Ottoman Empire, insisted on its capital’s new official name. Hanging in the Wire quotes Vera Lynn’s Second World War comforter The White Cliffs of Dover (echoes of Harvey’s 2007 album White Chalk too). And as other critics have already observed, the sardonic quotation from Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues (“What if I take my problems to the United Nations?”) throws the reader back to the Cold War 1950s, then further (by association) to the League of Nations’ doomed attempts to broker world peace after the First World War, and then right back to the present day, when the beleaguered UN is no guarantee of peace nor protection.

All this internationalism at first made me think it was meaningless to call Let England Shake a record “about” England but then I realised that England (or rather the United Kingdom) is where all roads lead. Who granted independence to Iraq and Jamaica and ceded it to the USA? Who defeated the Ottoman Empire? Who was a founding member of both the League of Nations and the UN? Who invaded Iraq in 2003? The England that Harvey loves, a place of fog-wreathed mystery on White Chalk, is here a bloodied and bloodthirsty entity. It would not be what it was without the wars that it won and the wars that it lost. “I live and die through England,” she sings. “It leaves sadness/It leaves a taste/A bitter one.”

I think it’s a masterpiece — certainly the most persuasive and original album of political songwriting in many years — and I hardly want to listen to anything else. The mood is hazy and elusive, with simple melodies and a high register chosen (she has said) so as not to make the record overbearing and didactic. The sound is airy, though every song mentions some combination of greedy mud, clawing branches and deep waters, suggesting that war is not so much an offence against nature as a manifestation of it. The earth devours its dead. The universal soldier marches on.

Note: From the top, the pictures are: ANZAC troops during the battle of Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli August 1915; Goya’s Great Deeds! Against the Dead!, from his series The Disasters of War, inspired by the Peninsular War 1808-14; Dali’s The Face of War, inspired by the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939.

Note 2: One influence Harvey has cited is Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit (Bitter Branches recalls Meeropol’s original title Bitter Fruit), which I discuss in the first chapter of the book and in this excerpt in today’s Guardian.