BLOOD SPORT PJ Harvey

On the Mercury Prize-winning Let England
Shake, she drapes herself in protest, violence,
passion – and mischievousness. Harvey’s
also just issued an
iTunes Session EP.

 

BY A.D.
AMOROSI

 

Throughout
20 years of abrasive theatricality, aggressive lyrical forms and concurrent
costume changes, there is nothing that’ll prepare you for the PJ Harvey who fashioned
the tame tones, high voices and feather-filled media that come with Let England Shake.

 

Maybe we
could dial that down a bit. Peel it back. Maybe that statement comes across as
hyperbolic. Every singer, especially ones that change their clothes and make
up, want you to believe there’s a new them prancing about. I mean, there is, as
always, Harvey’s
usual brand of slaughter in the air throughout Let England Shake – the bloody pulp and circumstance of soldiers
falling like lumps of meat; the drunken beatings; even the way dinars get
thrown around seems hostile.

 

But there’s
protest in the wind here as well, a heated place that Harvey’s
howl has never hit up previously as England‘s
windswept motion and coolly politicized mien is less directly personal than it
was throughout corrosive back-catalog highlights. There was the frayed
post-feminist art student of 1992 debut Dry and the un-pretty man-scaping poet of Rid
of Me
, fast-tracked for release the following year to capitalize on the
critical acclaim that greeted Dry. (Interviewing
the quietly brash Harvey
then was strange, as she came on like a lovely daydream and went out
chattering, candidly and hard.)

 

Those
scaled-down trio-bleating post-punk blasts – their sonic Beefheart-ian angles
and absurdist lyrical circlings – served as gateway drug to the more musically
open-ended and grandly story-filled To
Bring You My Love
(1995) along with her cold-eyed cameo on (rumored
paramour) Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads,
as well as 1998’s Is This Desire? She
was the modern bitch/siren on that trio of works, where the music was wonky Waits-y
cabaret and the words were murkily metaphorical. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea brought her back to
aggression lyrically and sonically (well, gem-polished aggression at the very
least), with her deep growling voice appropriating the mood and intent of
chatty characterizations like “Kamikaze” leading the 2000 album’s charge.
Four years later, Uh Huh Her offered
up aggro-pop without the props while 2007’s somewhat misunderstood White Chalk was haughty piano-filled
Hammer horror stuff with funereal glints of genius. You drown your daughter.
You chop up a lover. Hard personal stuff was this, flouncing around dark bits
of slow Pentangle-like folk and Gothic chamber twitches like raw silk against
oak’s bark.

 

 Quiet. Oh. So. Quiet. Rough hewn and with
self-meaning, this.

 

***

 

“Can you
ever really know what a person is thinking?” muses Polly Jean Harvey, through
the crackle of the wire, speaking from England.

 

In
reality, we’re discussing a few things to which that is a response; in previous
interviews I’ve had with her she seemed shyer, then harder, than present. Fo
example: the recent YouTubing of Harvey, all specked in feathers while playing
an autoharp (her new weapon of choice) on a BBC morning talk show as British
Prime Minister Gordon Brown looks on. “Let
England shake/Weighed down
with silent dead/I fear our blood won’t rise again,”
sings Harvey, posing like an onyx
ostrich while Brown stares.

 

“I don’t
now if I can read people well,” says Harvey,
about any expression gleaned from Mr. Brown’s lovely ardor. “No. I’m not like
that. I can’t begin to guess what he was thinking.”

The key to Harvey’s
Let England
Shake
is that you must think something when you walk away from it. It’s her
least passive listen. For all its saxophone’s honk (the only low end here),
floating high-voiced whispers and thrumming autoharp-filled tones touched by
oddly funny sampled riffs (“Istanbul,
Not Constantinople”? Really?!?), the
boldest vision within its stark white walls-her choice in cover art – is that
Harvey has finally opened herself up to the un-scrubbed society at large; the
political ramifications of war and the ages-old ruminations on peace. The idea
that murder can be doubly and deeply personal whether you’re bloodily slaughtering
hundreds or violently stabbing a lover. That God is in the details, whether
it’s “The Glorious Land” or the “Bitter Branches” she’s singing of. That
violence is leveled even when it’s the toss of a hand or the whisk of a
command. That her country is in ruins and that maybe all countries around her
are little more than that.

 

Things
are bad. Worse than they were when she was whipping her hair around her face
screaming “Sheela-Na-Gig” back in ‘92.

 

“I think
all of my past projects are equally valid, in terms of teaching me things,”
says Harvey.
Learning is her biggest measure of success – what records of hers taught Harvey the most about the
places she been (emotionally and physically) as well as that which she can
bring forward to her next projects. Certain albums of hers resonate more
clearly and powerfully than others. “To
Bring You my Love, White Chalk, Is This Desire?”
she says slowly. “These
are very strong pieces of work where I had a strong initial idea and I followed
that through to the end. They were clear.”

Other albums of Harvey
didn’t manifest themselves so firmly or resolutely. Uh Huh Her was not fully formed in her eyes or ears. “I didn’t know
where it was heading from the start and I can almost hear the different directions
that I’m pursuing but not necessarily always following through on any… one… moment.
But there are really good songs, very very good songs that peek through. It
didn’t feel quite ready, Uh Huh Her did.”

Thinking
about it now – and not that I wanted to go so darkly in to her recorded past to
begin with – I should’ve asked her about her first two albums, their passionate
disrepair and sonic dislocation. The most in which we get to discuss that level
of discord comes when I ask Harvey
if that initial Beefheart-ian spark that conjured such devilishly angular noise
is ever within her art or artifice at present. Especially now with her friend
and the good Captain recently passed, is there anything left of the aggressive
abstraction that filled Dry and Rid of Me?

 

“It is
more his spirit, really, that I feel that I carry with me always,” says Harvey. “He took his work
seriously and he pursued it truthfully; followed it where he thought it had to
go and always honored that direction.”

Whatever direction that was.

 

“I think it
was so unusual what he did – still now. It was so peculiar and singular. I’m
still constantly amazed by his music and his painting. I will listen to his
music when I feel in doubt of trusting my own instincts. His music reminds me
to do that.”

 

The
dedication to quiet and to folk music’s text and tone which fills Let England Shake comes from having
learned to trust her instincts enough to allow herself to write politically,
albeit it an open-ended sense.

 

White Chalk taught her to whisper. It also
was, as she had stated, the next chapter, with each of her albums being some sort
of continuation of the prior one even though she says she sees no through-line.
“I haven’t analyzed that part of myself yet,” she says.

 

White Chalk was the time where I
concentrated more on writing the lyrics quite far apart from the music. With
that I wanted to write a narrative that-separately-could be an interesting
short story as if you were to simply pick up a book and start reading.”

Out of that grew the notion that the text that could be as spoken word, “a clear
story that you could tell orally” which, combined with society’s ills and
political pull of wills, would create that which Let England Shake would become. The new record’s narrative, its
lyrical heart, came courtesy her concerns with the political planet and how
she’s been profoundly affected by what is going on in world. “Before this,
honestly, I did not have the confidence to put it all down, get in words what I
was thinking.”

This, from the woman who wrote the zipless fuck of “Man-Size” or the un-pretty
bop of “I Think I’m a Mother.” Perhaps she doth protest too much about her
levels of appropriating the profound.

 

“Ahh, but
politically you see, I never approached trying to talk about these things
within my writing because I hadn’t felt as if I had reached the stage where I
could do that well. I didn’t have that language and I didn’t want to do a bad
job… that could kill me.”

 

It wasn’t
so much the timing of world crises rather than the timeliness of her verbiage.
She simply felt as if she’d reached the place in her writing where knowledge
and skill, coupled with the terrors that affected her and her need to address
them, intersected. True, there’s a vagueness as to whether she’s singing of an
apathetic UK or a doomed UK on the title track, or even if she’s singing of
Mother England allegorically for other locations on the map. This cloying
clawing England
could be anywhere and everywhere. Its travails are too.

 

The
vagueness is intentional. What’s odd, though, is how songs such as “Written on
the Forehead” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” are as confrontational and
aggressive as any in her past, yet here find themselves hung upon a higher
softer coo and tender cushiony melodies. That comes from another first for Harvey in that she started
Let England
Shake
with the words.

 

“I wrote
and I sang the words first unaccompanied,” she says. “I would often walk as I
sang and each poem would slowly reveal its melody to me.”

Images of a wild-haired woman marching through the Moors mouthing the lyrics
about limbs spreading upwards and smashed-up waste (“Hanging in the Wire”)
dance in my head at this point as she talks about how the melodies grew from
there. “The songs that came around the words just fell in to place. They were
very simple in nature.”  

 

Having no
instruments around will do that. But that organic manner in which the melodies
came was purposeful. It’s about remembering the tunes as she sang-spoke the
words. “I had to find melodies that were conducive to want to sing along with –
especially as these words were already very weighty.”

 

Do not
get the impression that “In the Dark Places” and its mournful phrases about
putting “up crosses passed through the damned mountains” comes with a
Ke$ha-worthy hum. It’s just that spare solid simplicity became the musical norm
in which to carry the words from the page to the ear. As Harvey puts it, “Music became a way of
lifting the ideas, delivering them to the ear softly so that they could be
absorbed easily.”

The words
inspired where the melody would go. That openness is heard from the click and
yawn of “The Last Living Rose” to the crinkle of “The Colour of the Earth.” Not
having an instrument to lean on when writing then speaking/singing the words
meant that she’d reached into very different melodic airy areas that she might
usually have avoided or simply never knew existed: “I just sang the words
freely. I never did that before.”

 

Recorded
virtually live and quietly with Harvey
stalwarts Mick Harvey, John Parrish and such, a few new rules came into play
where Let England Shake is concerned.
“I spent a long time talking with each of them way up front. I read them the
words. I spoke about having a sense of timelessness in the music. Quite pliable,
but without being placed in any particular sound or time.”

Making songs, malleable and fluid, must have been difficult to pin down-more
akin to working with mercury than something musical.

“Exactly,” says Ms. Harvey.

 

***

 

There are
other, singular, elements at play on Let England Shake.
For starters, why the autoharp?

She first began using the many-stringed thing during shows she did around White Chalk. “It moves differently and
is quite a beautiful instrument,” she explains. “Like having a mini-orchestra
at your fingertips. So many strings and so much melody that rings from it. It
is utterly beautiful.” The autoharp does indeed lend itself elegantly to this
body of work to create a shimmering, moving continuum of sound. What about the
saxophone? She used to play previously, although the reed hasn’t been heard
pursed from her lips in some time. Yet here it is, the only low end (not much
bass) that Let England Shake knows.

“I love playing the sax now,” she says with chipper enthusiasm. “I used to play
a lot when I was younger. Well, too. Then I put it down and didn’t play for
nearly twenty years. I don’t play it well now, but that way is even better. I
quite like the sound of it not being played well. There is a honk-i-ness to it.”
Mention the sinister kink of the sax and how it acts as a raw-boned bottom to England‘s
often ethereal ambience and she laughs in agreement that I’m onto something.

 

Beyond
the air-iest tones and frostiest vocals of Let
England
Shake
, it is its lyrical tenor that shapes its content. As all politics are
local and personal though, she’s not succinct in her telling of what she’s
seeking to embrace. Let England Shake is outwardly expansive AND ambivalent toward her homeland on the title track.
She seems proud of her Britain
on “The Last Living Rose” then ruminatively forlorn on “England.” Which
land is her land?

 

“I don’t
think it’s down to me to explain the intention of each piece of work for it to
work,” she says firmly. “Obviously, it’s got to stand on its own with nothing
to do with me. It has nothing to do with me. Rather, though, it’s much more
about presenting of different perspectives; different ways of looking at
things. I wanted the songs to be open enough to bring your own interpretation.”

Certainly, as she has trafficked in blood and passion before, Let England Shake‘s most violent imagery
– of war within the selves and within battling lands, of disgust, of disregard –
must mean something more than it had in the past; her level of the grotesque is
less directly focused and more outwards bound. Before she can say it, I spit
out her answer: “It’s an ugly world, isn’t it?”

 

Harvey does, then, feel a kinship to the
folk music of protest, the demonstrative language of lyricists that came before
her, their positions against the ravages against the environment and of the
heart. But rather than focus on the contemporary, Harvey states it was the ancients who guided
her as she tuned in to folk music of all ages and all countries.

 

“I
listened to a lot of very ancient traditional music because it has a lot to
teach us. It also holds so much that could apply today.” She begins to tick off
Afghani folk, Russian, Middle Eastern, Cambodian, Britain,
Spain.
She mentions, too, the poetry of those countries. Paintings from Goya. Films
like those of Ken Loach’s and Stanley Kubrick’s. She pauses to accentuate how
important Harold Pinter was to her process (“his poetry, not his plays”) and
how inspirational TS Elliot’s “The Wasteland” was. “So much to learn,” she
says.

 

When I push
to mention certain nuances, like the characters in “The Colour of the Earth,” she
calls it ruinous to try to impart that sort of critical revelation. Mention the
details both vicious and lovely on “The Words That Maketh Murder” (my details
include the rolling of cigarettes, which makes her laugh), she’s coolly willing
to say that it is about the warring campaigns of Gallipoli. Ask if America is as ruined as her England is and
whether or not this album is a lament to our nation as well, she offers mildly,
“It fits if you want it to.”

The only thing that stops her and makes it so she relents with a chuckle is
when I refer to her humor. A once black thing that coated so much of her early
work, it is found in lighter shades within Let
England Shake
, such as using the rollicking coda to “Summertime Blues” as
part of her “The Words that Maketh Murder.” It is so weirdly mischievous and
reminiscent of the girl that used to be.

 

“Thanks
for you noticing this,” she says. For all the rumination and gloom, there is
frolic. “I laugh out loud a lot at this. Where would we be without comedy?” she
says, then mentions her love of Monty Python, the Blackadder BBC series featuring Rowan Atkinson (“especially Blackadder Goes Forth”), and Flight of
The Concords. “Where Blackadder is
concerned, that’s a prime example of getting the balance just right; a very
serious subject matter dabbed with comedy.”

Yes, folks, she just compared Let England Shake to
Rowan Atkinson. Bloody good.

With each album of hers being some form of next chapter in the annals of who PJ
Harvey is and what her progress might be, she holds no weight or want to
describe the mercurial nature of who she is or what possible backstory all this
contains.

 

“I never
thought of it before,” she says, with genuine pluck. “I don’t know if there is
one thing or if I ever bothered to analyze the thing. I’m just continuing to
learn and to explore. I just want to hit areas that I haven’t before.”

 

Again.

 

[Photo
Credit: Seamus Murphy]

 

This story originally appeared in
BLURT issue #10. Read also: “Mentors and Muses,” our roundup of Harvey’s collaborators.

 

***

 

The
PJ Harvey exclusive 
iTunes Session EP was released on Sept. 12 and is
available at the
iTunes
Store (http://bit.ly/pjharveyitunes).
The EP features seven recently recorded live tracks along with an interview
with the songwriter. The Session includes four songs from her most recent
album, 
Let
England Shake as
well as three of her most widely acclaimed songs from past albums. 

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