PJ Harvey is, to me, the Platonic Artist. There’s a discipline to her work that I respect; experimental and rigorous and meaningful, no two albums are alike, yet I hear her fascinations and compulsions spiral out over years and songs. While my favorite album of hers is White Chalk, her magnum opus (to date) is Let England Shake.1 In it, she’s perfected an earnest voice and a sound that echoes the past even as it is raw and unvarnished in the way that’s expected of a certain type of contemporary music. Listening to the song England in the car today unlocked for me Polly Jean’s gift for songwriting.
I’ve often snagged on the line “remedies never were within my reach”; something about “never were” instead of “were never” trips me because, grammatically, it could go either way.2 I found myself singing along to try out “remedies were never within my reach” against the original, and it fits. But then it hit me: the song is, I believe, in 4/4 time, yet the words are so syncopated that they must be strategically placed at peaks and valleys within the melody and sung to hit two, three, or more ascending or descending notes so that the correct words are stressed.3 “Never” must carry the stress rather than “were” and the alliteration in “were within” plays better with those words side-by-side instead of staggered.
When spoken, England is lovely bit of poetry. However, unlike Radiohead’s National Anthem which can barely be sung solo much less with a crowd, England is structured like a singalong national hymn. Its breakdown of patriotism’s complexities lies not in instrumentation as in Radiohead’s Anthem but in its plaintive words and their phrasing:
I live and die / through England
Through England It leaves a sadness
Remedies / never were within my reach I cannot go on as I am
Withered vine / reaching from the country That I love
You leave a taste
A bitter one
I have searched / for your springs
But people, / they stagnate with time
Like water, / like air
To you, England, / I cling
Undaunted, / never failing / love / for you England
God damn. It’s a beautiful thing. I prefer this version of patriotism – it’s the most… representative of my own experiences. She doubles a sample of Said El Kurdi’s Kassem Miro and reckons with this idea that is inspiring but insidious: What’s better than a ‘we’? And if ‘we’ depend on an undesired ‘they’? And if ‘they’ become ‘us’ and we become ‘them’?
- I am always tickled when the thing I like most by an artist isn’t the thing that is their best work because it belies the heart of the idea of taste: when something is universally applauded, no matter how perfect it is, the impulse is to find and claim some radiant other thing.
- Like a Shakespearean sonnet’s iambic pentameter, but without the galloping rhythm.