PJ Harvey – Stories from the Past, Stories of Today

PJ Harvey is an artist who has steadily built her reputation through a number of different approaches to her song-writing. From her early raw bluesy output, via the euphoric indie rock of Mercury winning ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea’, PJ has arrived at a more socially conscious persona with her second Mercury winning album ‘Let England Shake’ and its follow up ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. ‘Let England Shake’ is a look back at the horrors of the First World War and English national identity. ‘Hope Six’ is a more up to date social commentary, addressing issues of poverty and war in as distant places as Kosovo, Afghanistan and the USA.


I am particularly interested in these last two albums as they discuss themes that I wish to explore in my own work. Unlike Harvey, I do not have the finances or profile to travel the world to study life in other countries like she did with ‘Hope Six’. I do, however, have the power of the internet to find a diverse range of sources from which to draw my own conclusions and inspire my art.

Image of ‘Let England Shake’ album art taken from islandrecords.co.uk.

Within ‘Let England Shake’ we hear visceral accounts of life in the trenches and a sense of inflated nationalism not dissimilar to what is occurring in many countries across the world today.


One of the most successful songs on the album at reflecting the atrocities of a highly mechanised war is ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’. The opening lyrics are as graphic as any:


“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget;
I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,
Blown and shot out beyond belief.
Arms and legs were in the trees.”


This depicts just how much of a disregard this conflict had for human life. We learn how soldiers involved would like to forget what they have seen and taken part in, with people being killed in the most inhumane of ways. The simile of shot soldiers as “lumps of meat” perfectly encapsulates their heavy, lifeless bodies and also the lack of humanity of the situation; they are not people, they are “meat”.


We are also treated to a nostalgic but not entirely savoury notion of Englishness in ‘England’:


“I live and die through England,

It leaves a Sadness…

It leaves a taste, a bitter one.”

We also hear a familiar sentiment in ‘The Last Living Rose’


“God damn Europeans,

Take me back to beautiful England”

Image of ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ album art taken from creativereview.co.uk.

Hope Six brings us up to date with depictions of people in situations of poverty and war from around the world. The images she paints are stark and honest, singing about “drug towns” in the US and towns with “Fifteen gardens overgrown [and] fifteen houses falling down” in Afghanistan. However, as with ‘Let England Shake’, she is not primarily aiming to be political, rather she wishes to tell a story. She rejects the notion that she is a “protest singer” explaining on the Andrew Marr Show whilst promoting ‘Hope Six’ “I still call myself a songwriter… I gather information for songs and my biggest drive in life is to want to sing for people. That’s the way I get across things that interest me and concern me.”

Harvey recording ‘Hope Six’ in Somerset House, London. The process was watched by spectators through one-way glass. Image taken from gtechdesign.net.

I would also like to portray the horrors of conflict and its effects on ordinary lives. In one of my compositions I am aiming to use vocal samples of political leaders and word setting of interviews with child refugees from Syria to create a similarly graphic and emotive vision of a current conflict. This is a challenge as it requires me to create appropriate musical settings for each of the spoken elements to work. At the moment, I am using more aggressive material on which to put the samples of the political leaders and more stretched and processed, yet still disconcerting sounds to place under the words of the refugee children.


The way PJ Harvey uses accounts from people and her own observations in ‘Hope Six’ has inspired me to paint a picture of a bleak situation, one that we need to look at from the perspective of those involved as well as the second or third hand sources of people in positions of power in our own part of the world. I am hoping to show the contrast between the first hand reality and the perceptions and actions of our governments to combat these problems in my composition.


Watch the official trailer for PJ Harvey’s ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ here


– Sandy Power

PJ Harvey – Stories from the Past, Stories of Today

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