My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #4: PJ Harvey – ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’

I’ve seen and done things I want to forget/I’ve seen soldiers fall likes lumps of meat

As opening lines go, this was easily the most arresting of the year*. The words seem to carry even more power because of the fragile voice that expels them. The choice of vocal register that PJ Harvey uses on this song (and the album) is surely deliberate: the fragility of the voice in direct opposition to the awful power of what she is singing. The harrowing imagery of the song, which was taken from first-hand descriptions of various campaigns from Gallipoli to Afghanistan, takes on an eerie quality when sung in this register, but because it sneaks up on you, it forces you to consider the awful power what is being sung: “arms and legs were in the trees…death lingering, stunk…flesh quivering in the heat“.

Despite the imagery, the song, like the album, does not have a straight-forward anti-war message. There is no explicit statement of “war is bad!”, which makes what Harvey is singing carry more weight. She is describing the horrors of war, but these are soldiers’ stories, not angry slogans. If there is any anger, it is not at any particular side, but seemingly with the words that are used to justify war.

Having detailed the carnage of war, it is the off-kilter coda that is the real killer. It takes a jokey line from Eddy Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” and turns it into a question of solemnity and sincerity. As Gaddafi turned on the revolutionaries in Benghazi, threatening terrible violence, the UN intervened in Libya. At the same time as this was going on, PJ Harvey was performing this song on the radio and on TV programmes. Lots of people had a view on the UN intervention in Libya, but the question Harvey asked was ambiguous: it wasn’t sung sarcastically and it had no easy answer.

This is a prescient, rewarding and inspirational work of art.

 

* for rather different reasons, my second place goes to Stephen Malkmus’ ‘Tiger’: “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks

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