Why PJ Harvey’s 'Let England Shake' Won The Mercury Prize

Sad and fun, experimental and immediately accessible, filled with grief and filled with tunes. For once, the panel got it right by awarding PJ Harvey her second Mercury Prize...
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It’s funny how an attitude you have over a decade ago stays with you unless unchallenged.  I’d never listened to a P J Harvey album, as I had a mate at school who liked her, and he liked obscure, inaccessible, weird music which he bought on vinyl. One of his prize possessions was the vinyl version of Tori Amos’ album where she’s breast-feeding a pig on the cover. In your mid-teens when your sexuality is exploding onto you, you don’t need to see a woman breast-feeding a pig.

I didn’t have a record player or any desire to sit around listening to music that I didn’t immediately like, waiting for it to grow on me. That was where my perception of PJ Harvey came from and since her last album, “White Chalk” was apparently an exploration of England’s psycho-geography using the starting point of the white cliffs of Dover, I may have had a point.

P J Harvey’s “Let England Shake”, however, is very much my cup of tea, because I like my cup of tea to be served in bone-china, decorated with bloody scenes from England’s past and present.

This is a protest album, it’s about war and Englishness, and so ticks a lot of my boxes, but more than that, it has some proper great tunes on it.

I like protest music; I like songs with a message where you know what they are about. This might be a bit gap year of me but I’ve never grown out of it. Pulp’s “Common People” is not only a brilliant soaring, pounding tune, but also is about the social tourism of rich kids slumming it. It’s angry and nails it, and that, for me elevates it.

Also, I really like songs about places. Even the line “Born and raised in South Detroit,” in Journey’s “Don’t stop believing”, causes a baffling wave of emotion to break on my confused heart beach. I’ve never been to Detroit, and I certainly couldn’t differentiate between the south of it and its other regions, but the implication is that if you are from the South of Detroit the temptation to stop believing is stronger than in other areas. I don’t know whether or not that is true but I’m intrigued by the way a place’s history which means that the people who come from there have an inbuilt mind-set to work through (We’re getting into Psycho-geography here, maybe I should give White Chalk a listen).

In your mid-teens when your sexuality is exploding onto you, you don’t need to see a woman breast-feeding a pig.

In “England”, the line, “I live and die with England,” eloquently describes the complicated identity of the English.  It’s problematic celebrating Englishness without acknowledging that even our finest moments have been mixed with blood. The St. George’s flag was the flag that flew over the Crusades and looks worryingly at home wrapped round the shoulders of a racist football hooligan, but it’s still our flag of England.

P is exhilarating in her ability to stare the fruit of military action in the face. “What is the glorious fruit of our Land? The fruit is deformed children!” P sings in “The Glorious Land”, definitely my favourite song ever with the words “deformed children” in. But whilst her critique is damning, hers is a truly English voice, and so implicit in her critique is the celebration of the English voice for truth justice.

Even at it bleakest, there is an optimistic beat driving this album onwards. It’s both, sad and fun, hard-hitting and matter-of-fact, experimental and immediately accessible, filled with grief and filled with tunes.

I suppose it’s best to give a prize like the mercury to someone new, who could do with the help, rather than someone who’s already won it as PJ did in 2001, but I don’t think there is another album as current and resonant as PJ Harvey’s.

I come off stage to “Let England Shake” in my Edinburgh show this year (a show which, by the way, is a lot sillier and funnier than this article has become) and England is shaking. Most recently the News of The World was shaken down. It seems there’s no-one we can trust nowadays: politicians, bankers, and now journalists and the police. Next you’re going to tell me I shouldn’t have paedophiles to babysit.  But my show is about how whilst it’s the end of the News of the World, it’s not the End of the world, and whilst we have people like PJ Harvey living and dying for England I’m sure it isn’t.

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