I’m often asked about a time when I changed my mind and/or got it wrong.
Here’s an example then I guess.
When I first heard Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, I did not like it. I didn’t like it at all. I just did not connect with it. The title song was okay, and I quite liked second track, The Last Living Rose. But I wrote it off as a misstep in her career; a mistake.
Something about the album didn’t sit well with me – I thought it was a bit of a mess. But I wanted to carry on listening to it. I wanted to unravel it, rather than just write it off as the sound of PJ herself unravelling. That was my initial thought, I thought I was listening to someone’s mental decline through songs; a breakdown released as a record.
So why did I stick with Let England Shake?
Well – the title song and The Last Living Rose showed promise right from the start – so maybe I had been listening incorrectly? It can happen.
I should point out that I’m most definitely a PJ Harvey fan – have been for some time. I heard Rid of Me first and then really fell for To Bring You My Love. I went back to Dry after that. And then I forgot about PJ Harvey for a little bit – but I loved the Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea album (released in 2000). Since then I’ve been a keen PJ fan, collecting everything. I flew to Sydney in 2004 to see her play on the back of the Uh Huh Her album. It was a great show – made all the more worthwhile when it was announced she was taking a significant break from touring.
That break signalled a sea-change for PJ Harvey. And in 2007 she returned with White Chalk – a staggeringly different album, haunting and haunted. She was singing in a far more fragile voice; gone was any semblance of the sharp pop singer/songwriter or the rock-chick – it was back to the artist, the pure artist. She had taught herself piano. The songs were stripped back, eerie. She toured in support of the album; again, stripped back instrumentally, a whole new sound palette had been created.
Let England Shake seemed bizarre to me at first, unnecessary almost; certainly confused. I know that many people loved it instantly. And I know that there are some people out there – fans of Harvey’s – who struggle with it.
I spent time with Let England Speak because I kept catching snatches of the lyrics and thinking that they were brilliant constructions.
This, from The Last Living Rose:
Goddamn Europeans!/Take me back to beautiful England/And the grey damp filthiness of ages/And battered books/And fog rolling down behind the mountains/On the graveyards and dead sea-captains./Let me walk through the stinking alleys/To the music of drunken beatings/Past the Thames river glistening/Like gold hastily sold/For nothing
I reckon if a lyric is great then you’re probably dealing with a great piece of songwriting. And there is poetry not just in the lyric but in the music that supports it.
On this album Harvey plays saxophone, among other instruments, using it to provide punctuation. Baritone honks are like semicolons; musical, slithering in to allow other words to follow on, to flow on.
It is not just a lyrically brilliant album – it’s both a love letter to England and a (comment on a) death sentence; it’s both told through the eyes of a character and starkly confessional/personal.
It is musically adventurous too. Most of the instruments provide dual roles, both melodic and rhythmic. The saxophone offering punctuation is also like a musical stop-sign. Drums and guitars chug together, percussion clicks and clatters and feels majestic. Layers of sound swell so that there is a well-blanketed bed for the lyrics to lie in. Lying there, honest, moving, passionate.
I read an interview piece where Harvey claimed to spend up to a year working on the lyrics, the music mostly completed. The lyrics tweaked and picked at after, stitched into place with invisible thread.
Now I see it and hear it as a masterpiece. And this has been the case for many years. In fact, I’d changed my mind within the year of the album’s released. So, I’m certainly glad I kept listening to it, working through my issues with the music – what I mistook as a lack of focus was quite the opposite. This has been polished. It has been made with love. It is an album that stands out, that does not sound like anything else at the moment, or anything that came before it.
As an album it is almost without antecedent. Apart from some of PJ Harvey’s own records. And even then, it stands out and away from her other work. That said, it also, in some sense, perfectly pulls together the pre-White Chalk material with White Chalk, closing the gap that might have been suggested, unifying Harvey’s work.
I want to fall in and out of love with the works, to be challenged and to occasionally find some of them too challenging.
I also want to be wrong. And to feel like the music is so right. Even if I arrive there after other people. It’s not a race. It’s not about being right. Or coming first with the verdict. It’s about connecting; finding connection.
In 2017 PJ Harvey played one of the very best shows I’ll ever see. And half the material for that set was taken from this album alone.
The albums after this have been great too – one more almost in the style of England but then going further out, two books, and several more demo collections; in fact, an entire look over her catalogue to date. There was also a theatre score (very nice too). And a new volume of poems to come…
There will be more new songs too – no doubt. And I’ll be there for them. But Let England Shake was a new benchmark in quality from a brilliant, unassuming artist. I had to work to enjoy it. And I’m forever grateful for that.
Also, here’s an example – just one, there are several I’m sure – of my first impression being way off, of me not digging straight into it. But learning to love the album after several spins. Now I have the demo collection to hear how it was built, to listen to it anew.