Last week, I wrote about apocalyptic themes and imagery in contemporary music. In closing out that discussion (at least for now), I use PJ Harvey’s February LP, Let England Shake*, as a jumping off point to think about about war as apocalypse. In the album, we encounter a crumbling empire beset by militarism.
Here is the music video for “This Glorious Land” (lyrics here). It’s about the declining British empire:
Though the album touches on English militarism since World War I, this song seems to be a response to British and American interventionism in Afghanistan. It touches on the agricultural history of England and, by default, the US, and foregrounds the way in which war can engender both prosperity and doom. It begins with the call-and-response assertion that the land is not plowed by farmers, but “by tanks and feet…marching” as to war. Then the song asks, How is our glorious country sown?/Not with wheat and corn, the implication being that the country is sown with violence—indeed, that it owes its historical glory to violence rather than grain. England—and the US, in this song—has destroyed much to take much. The fruits of it all, she quietly sings, are “orphan children.”
Throughout the album, militarism and masculine-coded brute violence juxtapose conflicting concepts: apocalypse and glory, patriotism and disenchantment. Violent images are paired with tuneful, even upbeat, melodies. It starts with, “Let England Shake,” a song about brotherhood and disillusionment in war and its aftermath (lyrics and audio). The narrator chronicles the mixed feelings of a soldier coming home from war: Weighted down with silent dead/I fear our blood will rise again. Morale is unspeakably low. England’s dancing days are over. Another day, Bobby, for you to come home/And tell me indifference won–indifference, that is, as opposed to the high-minded ideals that bolstered the call to war. It is unclear whether Bobby returns alive or as a corpse; we are only told that the two head out to the fountain of death/And splash about drinking down death, nothing left of them but death. The dead, whether cold or breathing, are the price of splendor.
There is still a deep connection to place, even if our “glorious country” is not really what it once was, if only in myth and public imagination. The narrator of “The Last Living Rose” (lyrics) “[walks] through stinking streets” but really desires to watch night fall on the water/The moon rise up and turn to silver. In “Battleship Hill” (lyrics), the land seems to [return] to how it has always been/the scent of time carried on the wind. Perhaps there are hints of the pride some once felt for country in nostalgic glimpses.
The quiet suffering ultimately shifts from introspection to straightforwardly violent horror, which drowns out everything that once was. In “The Words that Maketh Murder” (lyrics), a solider laments, Death, lingering stunk/Flies swarming everyone…/Flesh quivering in the heat. The beat is harsh and brusque—even militaristic—giving the images a sense of inevitability. The possibility of understanding everything through the lens of a grand ideal is no more; out on the field, it’s clear that this is just murder.
On the track, “All & Everyone” (lyrics), the narrator sings that death was in the staring sun/fixing its eyes on everyone. Even so, “it rattled the bones of the Light Horsemen still lying out there in the open.” I think this may be a reference to the Boer Wars and to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who bring disease, conquest, famine, and death. It’s one of the loveliest and most horrifying songs on the album. Death is not the individual experience it was in “Let England Shake,” but a collective one. It was “in the ancient fortress,” and it’s here now. In this gorgeous funeral dirge, death is cast as the foundational truth of England—a rite to be indulged and something too omnipresent to escape.
The album was of course released months before London burned this year. There is little explicit reference to class, though there are nods to working class English folk music as well as to the more intricate choral arrangements of the aristocracy. I think this may be by design, as the implication seems to be that we are all incriminated by our country’s imperial maneuvers. In a way, we live in the shadow of Armageddon, where we see bursts of violence every now and then that hint of its return.*
*You can listen to the album in its entirety on Spotify.