Photo: Seamus Murphy

The West’s Asleep: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake and Hope Six Demolition Project and Their Demos

In the latest of his series of explorations into PJ Harvey’s recent reissues and demos, Matthew Barton dives into her two most recently released albums, Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project, along with their demos

It’s been two years now since PJ Harvey first dropped a photo of her early 90s demo cassettes on Instagram, heralding the arrival of an extensive back catalogue reissue campaign – each studio album re-released, with an accompanying album of demos for each one. In other words, the Holy Grail for PJ Harvey fans.

In that time, Harvey has offered a remarkable insight into her creative process – how the songs of To Bring You My Love, for instance, were mostly built on drum machine patterns; how much of the finished version of Is This Desire? lifts exactly from the demo recordings; how the spectral beauty of White Chalk is even more gossamer in its fragile, intimate initial incarnations.

And here we are, at the end of a wonderful, pitch-perfect project (with top-quality art direction, I might add), with the reissues of and demos for Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project, Harvey’s most recent two LPs, upon us.

Let England Shake became the second of Harvey’s records to win the Mercury Music Prize, in 2011, and stands tall as perhaps her most critically-lauded work. By contrast, Hope Six, upon its appearance in 2016, yielded some uncharacteristically mixed reviews from critics and fans. Several years on, how do these records sit in the Harvey catalogue?

White Chalk had appeared in 2007, a marvellous about-turn that found Harvey using the piano as her main instrument for the first time. A reaction to the comparative artistic dead-end of 2004’s underrated Uh Huh Her, White Chalk found Harvey writing, playing, and singing in a completely new way – no mean feat for an artist so far into their career. Time has cemented its status as a mid-career artistic triumph and we may look back on it in years to come as the pivotal moment in her artistic life.

The accompanying solo tour found Harvey bringing an array of instruments with her, including the autoharp on which she re-arranged songs including “Grow Grow Grow” and 1995’s “Down By The Water”. It’s the autoharp that became the fulcrum of the Let England Shake sound. As she was to explain in a TV interview with Andrew Marr in April 2010, on the eve of recording the album at St Peter’s Church in Eype, Dorset, Harvey had an autoharp custom-made with more minor keys to give a greater depth of sound. As such, Let England Shake can be seen as a follow-on from White Chalk – not necessarily musically, but in terms of its reliance on a new instrument to the Harvey palette and a determined desire to not repeat a previous formula.

The autoharp, with its chiming folk simplicity, gives the songs on the album a strange, off-kilter, sing-song atmosphere. The move was a deliberate one, with Harvey intent on lending the weight of her words a direct musical contrast.

And to the weight of those words: the subject matter, for largely the first time, looks heavily outward and the album finds Harvey inspired by accounts of wars and conflicts (particularly accounts of WWI). Harvey’s primeval imagery always imbued her personal songs with remarkable depth, and the same can be said as she turned to a more political viewpoint – something she had been keen to do for some time.

As she told Uncut in 2012: “Part of the reason this album happened was that, as a writer, I was finally at the stage where I was more confident that I could carry it off. I had more craft of language at my disposal than I had before. And it was that coupled with the greater sense of urgency and frustration, and that feeling of impotence. It was those two things that made me think, ‘OK, if I’m feeling this profoundly moved, upset, frustrated by what’s happening, can I use that in song?’”

The finished album is an artistic triumph, but a very different sort of triumph for Harvey. It has none of the dirty, murky blues of To Bring You My Love, nor the punkish ferocity of Rid of Me, nor the disquieting intimacy of Is This Desire?. Instead, it possesses a fresh, clear sound, partly achieved by the ringing autoharp and the heavy reverb effects on the guitars, but also an often heavily percussive one – there’s the shuffle beat of “The Glorious Land”, built on a sample of “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” by The Police, the handclaps in “The Words That Maketh Murder”, the frenetic drumming in “Bitter Branches.” Harvey’s voice sits on top, neutral and clear as a bell, devoid of the grit and growl of some of her previous work but also not quite in the same ethereal realm as the disembodied White Chalk ‘church voice’. It rests somewhere between, the narrator of the cruel, brutal scenes depicted in the lyrics (“soldiers fell like lumps of meat… arms and legs were in the trees”).

The demos for the album are one of the most fascinating sets of the series. Recorded in 2008, they find Harvey trying to locate her footing in these colossal, big-idea songs – it’s intriguing to hear how she settled ultimately on that narrator-style vocal sound. Indeed, Harvey herself said she spent a lot of time trying to figure out the ‘voice’ of the album, telling the Bridport News in 2011: “I couldn’t sing [the songs] in a rich strong mature voice without it sounding completely wrong. So I had to slowly find the voice, and this voice started to develop, almost taking on the role of a narrator.”

Especially captivating in the Let England Shake – Demos is hearing how some of the songs were built on looped samples. Similarly to how To Bring You My Love – Demos reveals that songs like “Meet Ze Monsta”, “Long Snake Moan”, “Down By The Water”, and “Send His Love to Me” were all recorded to pre-set drum machine patterns, there are some songs on Let England Shake where you feel that the rhythms and structure were derived from (occasionally improbable) sample loops.

The title track is no surprise, Harvey having debuted it at Camp Bestival in the summer of 2009 and having played a memorable version of it on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in April 2010 (complete with Ann Demeulemeester outfit and corvid headdress that became so intrinsic to the Let England Shake visual identity) – it stands here on the demos album, in all its bizarre glory, built on the “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” sample by the Four Lads. It doesn’t quite work yet it weirdly does – which is the story of some of the album as a whole. Same goes for the jarring bugle call running through “The Glorious Land” – that’s here too in the demo, along with The Police sample from the start, giving it its shuffling rhythm – and the competing voices in “England.”

Best of all is “The Words That Maketh Murder,” where the ‘what if I take my problem to the United Nations’ interpolated into the finished version’s coda is actually there, throughout, in its original sample from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Hearing Harvey’s exquisite, brutal song played atop this repeated loop is a real treat – a joy to hear the eccentric machinations of the creative process. (“England” and the outstanding Niney the Observer-imbued “Written on the Forehead” feature their album version samples in the original demos too.)

There are subtle differences throughout the Let England Shake – Demos to the finished versions, and these truly are demo recordings in the most obvious sense of the word – all of them are stand-alone takes that Harvey re-recorded with the band in the spring of 2010 (see also her cover drawing of the church at which sessions were held.) This is unlike some of the previous sets, where the final album versions often take the original demo tracks as the basis of the final arrangement, whether a guitar part or vocal or, often, both.

“All and Everyone,” solo on autoharp, is somehow even more bereft and merciless; “On Battleship Hill” is arguably even more beautiful and haunting, especially with the heavy reverb effect on the deeper dual vocal. “In the Dark Places” is smudgier and harder-edged in its original incarnation, with some fuzzy electric guitar work; the final version once again does benefit from a more refined vocal.

“Bitter Branches”, meanwhile, has a siren call running all the way through and the demo has a more ethereal feel than the gusto of the finished version. “Hanging in the Wire,” by contrast, has a strange urgency to it with the autoharp and electric guitar strumming heavily together (and without the delicate piano line cutting through). Harvey’s vocal, too, is closer to the PJ Harvey of yore.

It’s also intriguing to hear Harvey finding her way lyrically as she sets her poetry to music in a way she hadn’t before – Walker in “Hanging in the Wire” is ‘Davey’ in the original version, and listen out for her original pronunciation of “dinars” as “diners” in the extraordinary “Written on the Forehead”.

The Let England Shake – Demos are pretty astonishing and, once again, show the immovable clarity of Harvey’s vision as far back as 2008, some two years before the final recording sessions and even before she had set out to tour A Woman A Man Walked By with John Parish in 2009. Harvey told Uncut in 2012: “I had no idea how people would receive the record, even when we had finished it. I knew I was very pleased with it. And I knew that I had achieved what I set out to do, which isn’t always the case. Often when I start recording I think I’m heading in one direction, but find myself veering off somewhere else and don’t quite get where I want to. But I knew with this record it had absolutely gone where I had hoped it would.”

Let England Shake isn’t an easy listen, despite the songs having some of the most inviting and easy-going melodies of her career. Harvey’s records have never been particularly easy listens, which is one reason why they maintain a visceral impact years down the line. Let England Shake is undeniably a striking artistic achievement, and the demos only go to show even more breadth to her skill as a writer and artist. There is sheer determination to try something bold and new each time, something different to what she had done before. More attention this time is paid to the lyrics, and there is a real poetic beauty in much of the imagery – “Written on the Forehead,” for instance, is delicious in its scope and word selection. That does not detract, either, from the stark horror found elsewhere.

It’s also engrossing to hear the difference between Harvey’s demos and the space she left for the musicians to experiment. Where there are elements of albums like To Bring You My Love and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea that faithfully replicate the original demos and Harvey’s thought-out arrangements, Harvey this time was keen to give the musicians room to breathe and experiment, as she told the Bridport News: “I wanted to leave room for them so they could bring their feelings into it as well. Usually I would have planned everything and known what instrumentation I wanted. This time I demoed the songs mostly with one or two instruments with a voice and that was as much as I had. So I basically had the chords and a couple of saxophone melodies, a couple of voice melodies and that was what I took with me to the church. We rehearsed the songs as if we were rehearsing to play them live and found quite quickly that we had only rehearsed a song through maybe twice and Flood had started recording us.”

Let England Shake was greeted with widespread acclaim and another well-received tour. With two back-to-back high quality artistic accomplishments, there was a strong appetite for what might be next.

It took five years for Harvey to follow Let England Shake, and the spring of 2016 brought the release of The Hope Six Demolition Project, which had been recorded in January and February 2015 as part of an art installation – ‘Recording in Progress’ – at London’s Somerset House. Members of the public could pay to come and watch Harvey and the band pull the album together in timed slots, but without knowing exactly what would be coming – a vocal overdub? A second take? Tuning up?

The demos album reveals, again, that the songs were written and complete far in advance of the recording sessions – Hope Six had been written and demoed by 2012, which of course means it’s now a decade since the last Harvey album material was conceived.  

Let England Shake and Hope Six are often seen as a kind of two-parter – Harvey as reporter, narrator, field journalist. They find her looking further afield for inspiration, and Hope Six arguably looks even further outward. Where Let England Shake is inspired by historical war accounts (paying particular attention to testimonials from the Gallipoli campaign in WWI and the emotive terror of war poets), Hope Six brings us to the present day and had been inspired by Harvey’s travels, with photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy, to Washington DC, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. It can feel like an album of reportage, but in a more oblique way than its predecessor. It’s up to the listener to decide whether Harvey manages to convey much meaningful insight.

Accompanied by precisely zero interviews, it’s hard to grasp exactly what Harvey was after with Hope Six. The subsequent documentary A Dog Called Money, as beautiful as some of the scenes could be, elicited some accusations of poverty tourism and a song like “Medicinals”, which has a fabulous rhythm and a gloriously snaking sax line (and a welcome, full-throated vocal) is almost ruined with its excruciating final verse conflating a wheelchair-bound woman with a “Redskins cap on backwards,” drinking booze from a paper bag – “a new painkiller for the native people” – with the rather beautiful imagery of sassafras and sumac growing naturally in the DC marshland.

Hope Six has a strange mishmash sound – the album derives more from Harvey’s blues lineage than anything in her catalogue for some time, and it has a swampy vibe in parts with heavy percussion and male vocals. There’s lots of brass and horns and marching rhythms but also a fair bit of lighter-sounding material in between – and this chasm is even more pronounced in the demo recordings. The demos are often quite sketchy and, oddly, feel almost under-written.

A prime example is “Chain of Keys”, which has a jagged, stop-start, somewhat improvisational autoharp strum in the demo version, as if Harvey is plucking a melody out of thin air to transplant her lyrics onto. It’s a bit clunky, but remarkably is ironed out in the brooding, march-time finished version, where the autoharp disappears completely. The same goes for “Dollar, Dollar,” which is a little stilted and bare in the demo but more shimmeringly beautiful in its final version.

Songs like “River Anacostia” recall some of Harvey’s more basic demos from the Is This Desire? era, with its simple stabbing synth line and repeated drum machine pattern. It’s a weird one – you can’t quite decide whether it’s beautiful and dreamy or a little undercooked. The final album version still has a lot of space but benefits from a spooky repeated male chorus.

Undoubtedly beautiful, though, is the demo for “The Orange Monkey”, which bizarrely comes over like PJ Harvey helming a lost 80s synth pop song. It shares that insistent synth DNA and rudimentary musicality with “River Anacostia” but with a completely absorbing melody and it is sung beautifully – this is one of Harvey’s purest, most gorgeous vocals. Listen to how she sings “the track was now a motorway.” Indeed, on Hope Six as a whole, Harvey deploys more facets of her voice than on Let England Shake. She never quite unleashes the rock siren that we know is still in there (listen to some of the performances from the 2016-17 tour) but it’s not all affected upper register either.

That’s not the case, though, with “A Line in the Sand”, a song I could never got on with in the album version, largely because of Harvey’s mannered vocal. The demo version, however, is a complete revelation – it’s a crystalline beauty, with its reggae rhythm much more pronounced and intertwining perfectly with her sax line. It’s a potent mix and, possibly out of nowhere, the highlight of the entire Hope Six Demolition Project – Demos.

Despite not feeling quite like it finds its footing between the more blues-inspired material and stripped-back synth-accented demos (a fate that also befell Uh Huh Her), one cohesive element of the Hope Six era is Harvey’s reliance on a heavy reverb effect on her voice – and this is ever-present in the demos. Occasionally it detracts from the material at hand, but on songs like “The Wheel” – glorious in its finished version and beautiful in its stripped-down form (the transition into its chorus is wonderful) – and “The Ministry of Defence”, it adds its own flavour, as if it’s an additional instrument. The latter song’s demo is a close prototype of that colossus of an industrial riff found on the album version.

“The Community of Hope,” apparently based on words lifted verbatim from Washington Post journalist Paul Schwartzman as he gave Harvey and Murphy a tour of Washington DC, has a brighter and distinctly 60s-sounding feel in its chord progression in the demo version – having the two versions (John Parish pushed for a different feel in the final arrangement) is a delight.

But not all the material works quite as well. “The Ministry of Social Affairs” is a classic blues, built on the refrain from Jerry McCain’s “That’s What They Want”, but rather outstays its welcome (apart from the live version, where Terry Edwards goes to town). “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” is also as clunky as its title would suggest: rare misfires.

The Hope Six Demolition Project – Demos reveal an album that, at times, is a little half-baked and underdone. The final album has a more cohesive sound but the demos indicate that Harvey hadn’t really settled on exactly the direction she wanted to go in – in that way it definitely has something in common with Uh Huh Her: also in the bald truth that, while there are good songs to be found, there are also comparatively weak ones. And that’s an irregularity for someone with such quality control as PJ Harvey.

The melodies are often strong but there’s some elusive magic missing that fails to pull it all together. The demos are surely interesting to hear and they definitely put a different colour on the album, but for me they also confirm my feeling that Hope Six lands on the weaker end of the scale of Harvey’s musical offerings.

Since Hope Six, Harvey’s occasional musical offerings have exclusively involved soundtrack works and theatre scores (including beautiful accompaniment for new productions of Hedda Gabler and, most recently in 2019, All About Eve.) It has felt that we are in a strange musical hinterland in the Harvey career, a prolonged spell that has the air of the post-Uh Huh Her about it somehow – but, as yet, with no clue of the next step.

Which brings us to today – PJ Harvey is now back on the promotional circuit but this time for a new poetry collection, Orlam, published by Picador and written in Dorset dialect. The accompanying promo photos reveal Harvey in a White Chalk-style dress embroidered with flora and fauna, and with the occasional bird motif a la Let England Shake.

It already feels a lot more cohesive than Hope Six; Harvey told The Observer a few weeks ago: “I needed to bring back the scale of my writing to something more interior. With Let England Shake, I’d been looking outwardly to explore what was happening in the world. On an emotional level, I felt this great need to rest and nourish myself.”

She also, rather excitingly, revealed that a new album is slated for release in 2023, which will be her first in more than seven years, and one that she is “really pleased with… and I’m my own harshest critic.” I had half-convinced myself that that was it for PJ Harvey’s recording career as it was, a feeling reinforced by this reissue campaign that, while certainly welcome and beautifully done, felt like more of a looking back than one is used to with PJ Harvey.

But maybe one has to look back to look forward. Much time has now elapsed since Harvey’s most recent two LPs. Indeed, the gap between Let England Shake and the present day is longer than that between her debut album Dry (1992) and the Mercury-winning Stories. The six years since Hope Six are the longest we’ve gone without new recorded Harvey material.

Everything is pointing towards something bold and new in the future and, having followed Harvey through mercurial twists and turns over three decades, we must not second-guess what she might have come up with. We’d probably be wrong.

One thing’s for sure: it will be a new release to savour. And maybe with an accompanying demo album…?

PJ Harvey’s expanded reissues of Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project are available on her official store.

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