Let England Shake (2011), the eighth album by the English singer PJ Harvey, was by itself already high concept: In the music industry in the twenty-first century, releasing an album that focuses so explicitly on history – on war, on England, on England and its wars – seems like a particularly dangerous gamble. Even for Harvey herself, much about the album was different from her previous work, including the instrument of choice (autoharp), the singing voice, and even the writing process – the lyrics were written and finalized before she began to write any music at all.
The only thing left to do with such an unconventional album might be to keep going along the same route, to heighten the high concept. Instead of filming traditional music videos, Harvey asked the British war photographer Seamus Murphy, whose photographs from Afghanistan she had admired, to make a few short films for some of the songs on the album. The end result of that process is a DVD, also titled Let England Shake, that collects all twelve of these films as a sort of film on its own.
The songs on the album work in part by not sonic but cognitive dissonance, by contrast: The lyrics are generally somber, focused as they are on war and violence and the weight of history (from the title song: “Let England shake/weighted down with silent dead… England's dancing days are done”; from “In the Dark Places”: “Passed through the damned mountains/went hellwards/and some of us returned/and some of us did not”) and the music is completely the opposite. If you ignore the words, these could be cheerful folk songs. The song “The Colour of the Earth,” in particular, sounds likes something children might sing around the fire at a summer camp in dystopia.
Murphy's films work in the same way, resisting interpretation of the songs for what he describes as a sort of “road journey.” We see disconnected shots of England – a Punch and Judy show, traffic, nature, visitors at a museum, beaches, mixed in occasionally with what looks like archival footage and some of Murphy's photographs from combat zones. The lyrics provide the weight, the music the levity; the films provide calm, not neutrality or even necessarily objectivity, but just a gaze – the effect is something like looking through a travel guide, or the photographs of a family you'll never know. Sometimes the film echoes the songs (the video for the song “Bitter Branches” opens with shots from below of bare branches against the sky) but mostly they do not. In “The Words that Maketh Murder,” for example, we see what appear to be elderly couples taking a class in ballroom dance. The songs on the album are very much an interaction with history, with the past and future of England, and Murphy's films give us a glimpse of its present.
The most unique thing about this collaboration is perhaps what it demands of the listener. I can't remember the last time I sat and listened to an album, an entire record, all the way through, in order – it's so easy now to shuffle, to go from reggaetón to 1970s punk to qawwali and Top 40, to listen to a song here and a song there rather than one coherent, fully conceived piece. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but it's a different experience. Let England Shake is an album that really wants to be listened to all at once, from its first song to its last, and Murphy's collaboration reinforces that, asking the listener not just to listen and watch but also to reflect, to hold for a moment these three pieces of time together and consider what they might mean, not just for England but for the rest of us as well.