PJ Harvey's Let England Shake Wins the Mercury, Opens Old Wounds

Sep 8, 2011 at 10:32 pm

The bestowing of the UK’s Mercury Prize upon Polly Jean Harvey’s Let England Shake is a heartening moment beyond the typical cultural reach of the award, for two reasons: The first is that she’s the only person in the nearly two-decade history of the honor to receive it twice, which is nifty enough. The second is how beautifully the moment coalesces with the bleak international mood right now, something subtly hinted at by Harvey’s acceptance speech: “When I last won ten years ago on September 11, 2001, I was watching the Pentagon burning from my hotel window.” It’s no secret that this is the maverick singer-songwriter’s War album. It’s explicitly concerned with World War I, Europe's lost generation, the Gallipoli campaign, but it also draws heavy inspiration from the ten years of fighting in Afghanistan (and Iraq) that have ensued since that bizarre day Harvey found herself stranded in Washington. The Mercury might mean little on these shores, but it gives us a reason to talk about a work of art that we need, direly, right now, as all too familiar images begin to haunt our television screens again ("Death hung in the smoke and clung," goes one verse), now accompanied by the dirge of decade-length hindsight and regret.

Writing about the album in The Believer, Greil Marcus mentioned its conjuring up of gray, dreadful images of fighting and strife akin to Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men; in an age when folk rock is largely consumed with the Pretty (Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, Bon Iver), Harvey casts the spotlight on its more desperate, tormented corners, and not just within its English and Irish bent. A undercurrent of menacing Americana runs throughout -- the murder ballads and mournings, "Banks of the Ohio" to "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake," down to Eddie Cochran's UN lament from "Summertime Blues."

Marcus’ comparison is all the more apt because the album is so harrowingly cinematic – it can just as easily call to mind Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Hitchcock's Sabotage, or Herzog’s Aguirre, anything that leaves a gray, lingering dread. At its best and starkest, like the gorgeously shambolic “Hanging in the Wire,” Let England Shake can’t stray from the battlefield it so sickeningly captures. But its less delicate, more persistent cries seem to give vent to the futility we’re all feeling on this fateful anniversary, and that's no accident, as Harvey told the press after the ceremony: "I think there is a connection between what happened ten years ago and the content of this album, in a certain way. Obviously this record that I’ve won with is largely about the wars that we’re involved in, contemporary wars, but also, I wanted in a way for it to be timeless, because we’ve always been involved in wars. But I think that the greater urgency that I felt to write an album about this now is [...] the result of what has happened in the last ten years." So our young men hid with guns, in the dirt and in the dark places.