Shakin' all over
PJ Harvey’s most recent album, Let England Shake, deals with themes of war and violence. Will it all prove too heavy for this month’s album clubbers? DARAGH DOWNESfinds out
WHEN Mary McEvoy tells you she had to stop playing Let England Shakeafter just three listens, you brace yourself for a scathing review. But it turns out Mary is paying PJ Harvey the mother of all compliments. “I found that her voice was hitting a place I didn’t want it to hit. My own personal history is such that I have to mind my moods or else music affects me very much. So I ended up putting on Madonna’s Celebration instead!”
WOMAN’S INHUMANITY TO WOMAN
Mary doesn’t just find Let England Shakegood. She finds it appallingly good. So saturated is it in themes and imagery of war, from the trenches of the first World War to the ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, that it makes for an unsettling listen.
“It is a work of art. It stimulated me to that degree. It’s not a recreational album, a cosy ‘sitting by the fire with a glass of wine and a slice of pizza’ album. And how I would listen to music these days is probably recreational, because of my strong reaction to it.”
Applauding Harvey’s “general intensity, the way she feels very deeply and is so deeply committed to what she does”, Mary speaks of the forbidding “bleakness” of the music and the “elegiac” quality of the voice. “If it was bland or if she wasn’t sincere and hit a false note, I think I could pull back from it. But it’s almost like she pushes your face up to the window and holds you there. She doesn’t let you slip away. So it’s something you handle with care. You go to it when you feel ready, you don’t just stick it on. But I would listen to it again, definitely.”
SHOT THROUGH THE HEART
Eleanor McEvoy says Mary’s response to the album has hit her “like a bullet through my heart. I think if you’ve had a certain amount of darkness in your life, you do have to really watch it. It’s not just in music, I find it with literature, with plays, with films, with every aspect of my life. I do actively avoid the really deep, dark stuff, which is what I’ve been drawn to all my life.”
Eleanor came to Let England Shakeneeding some convincing that PJ Harvey was still an artist worth spending time on. A fan of Harvey’s earlier work, and a particular fan of Is This Desire?, she was turned off by 2004’s Uh Huh Her. The piano-driven balladry of its successor White Chalk didn’t do anything to win her back.
What intrigues – and relieves – her about Let England Shakeis the “quirkiness”. Without this, she argues, the album’s thematic darkness would be just too much to take. “The lyrics are quite dark, but I think PJ Harvey tries to leaven them with the melodies, the arrangements, the instrumentation, even with the range of her voice. It’s also very interesting in terms of the chord progressions, the harmonic progressions, the time signatures. I think this is more sophisticated than some of her previous stuff.”
A return to form, then? Most def. “I think any fans she might have lost along the way will certainly come back for this one.”
Eleanor is also quite taken with the album’s distinctive “sonic fingerprint”, an aspect that Meljoann is keen to stress too. “It was recorded in a church,” says the latter, “and you can hear the echo permeating the entire record. It gives it a really cohesive sound. Emotionally it contributes to this dreamlike, faraway, detached feeling.”
For Meljoann, Harvey’s use of “jarring”, out-of-sync samples on tracks such as The Glorious Land and Englandis another delicious feature. “I’m not sure I’ve noticed her using samples in that way before. And as an electronic musician it jumps out at me. She’s using them almost in a musique concrète kind of way.”
What makes the album really special for Meljoann is its strange emotional alchemy. “It’s like she’s transmuting the darkness into this kind of mocking, fierce quality. I find it uplifting. Obviously it’s still extremely dark, extremely disturbing. To me, though, when those kinds of feelings are transmuted into anger, it almost brings them through to a kind of calming place. It’s funny, because she’s railing against apathy and yet there’s almost an acceptance, a resignation, that this is the way it is. It really affected me.”
Meljoann likes the way Harvey doesn’t try to draw her listener in with cheap shock tactics or facile political point-scoring. Instead we are given access to “an intensely personal sick feeling, which is the instinctual reaction a lot of us have – whether we think of ourselves as political or not – against violence”.
Word of warning: “Don’t put this on if you’re feeling amazing, it’ll make you think more deeply than you want to.”
Michelle Doherty’s initial impressions of Let England Shake? “I wouldn’t have instantly fallen in love with it.”
Had she not already signed up to our strict regimen of repeated listens, it’s doubtful she would have given the thing a second listen. And given that she already had a bunch of Choice Music Prize albums competing for her time and attention, the temptation to quietly write off the new Polly Jean must have been strong.
We’re glad she didn’t – and so is she. “It has grown on me. You just have to give it time. I really had to persevere. And sometimes those are the best albums, rather than something more instant like Florence and the Machine that doesn’t stand the test of time. PJ Harvey seems to know how to come up with something that does.”
The key to these songs’ emotional impact, Doherty feels, lies in the unpretentious directness and simplicity of the lyrics. “She creates an amazing image for you. And we’ve all seen those war movies. We’ve never been a part of war, as in fighting ourselves on a battlefield, but we’ve all seen it in the movies. She tells a really good story, you actually feel that you’re there.”
And what of the point made by the other three guests about the emotional demands this album makes on the listener? Doherty can very much relate. “I’ll be taking a wee step away from it for a while, because it is just too much. Some of the words in it about body parts and so on. You’re only human and it is going to affect you. You can visualise what’s going on here. But I would come back to it again, yeah. I think you have to be in a certain frame of mind to be able to deal with it.” Just like the Two Door Cinema Club album, really.
Four Album Clubber thumbs. Each trembling slightly. But each pointing unmistakeably up.
Meet the clubbers
MARY McEVOY is a television and stage actor. She played Biddy Byrne in RTÉ’s Glenroe
MICHELLE DOHERTY is a television and radio presenter. She was a member of the 2010 Choice Music Prize judging
MELJOANN is an electronic musician. Her debut album, Squick, was recently released.
ELEANOR McEVOY is one of Ireland’s best-known singer/songwriters. Her new single, Deliver Me, is out now.