PJ Harvey claimed her first Mercury Prize on Sept. 11, 2001 for the record Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
She was the first woman to win the award and is the only person to have won the award twice (the only other two-time nominee to this date has been Radiohead, although they have never won). She won her second Mercury Prize this year for Let England Shake. Harvey’s records notably bookend the last decade which began with such promise to only know war, crises and neuroses that have scarred a whole generation.
I was seventeen when Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was released. I bought it at a record store in my hometown which closed this year. I was eighteen when Harvey won the Mercury Prize (which she accepted while watching the Pentagon burn) and the world watched the World Trade Center fall. And as quickly as that day passed, all of a sudden the United States was in a war; then we were in two. Then as quickly as that happened, we had a financial crisis, the bankruptcy of American industry, a housing crisis and if there’s something else shitty that I didn’t allude to in poetic terms, let me know and I’ll add it.
I’m twenty-eight now.
It doesn’t sound old but I feel it some days. I feel it when I avoid my news diet and allow myself to read everything that I used to love. I used to read six or seven newspapers a day, follow double as many blogs and generally just OD on news and commentary until I was my very own talking head. I can’t do it anymore; I get too angry, I get too upset.
I think these two records are the perfect bookends because they both belong to the times in which they were written. I do acknowledge that most music captures the time it was recorded in. However, I feel like these records tell the story of what life was really like in 2001 and 2011 respectively. Stories probably does it unintentionally, whereas England is blatant.
Harvey wrote Stories during a particularly happy time while she was coincidentally living in New York. The whole record is drenched in references to the city, its bridges and its way of life. She sings lovingly of listening to her lover on a rooftop in Brooklyn in “You Said Something.” In one of my favorite songs of all-time “A Place Called Home” she pleads, “With you I wait to be born again,” and tells the listener “Now is the time to follow through/To read the signs/Now the message is sent/ Lets bring it to bring it to its final end.” She might be singing about a burgeoning love, but when I listen to the song at twenty-eight, it doesn’t carry the weight it did for me at eighteen. In 2001, I believed in that kind of promise. I believed that my friends and I could do anything we put our minds to, no matter what kind of barriers could stand in the way. Yes, granted, most teenagers believe in that kind of promise, but I believe that my class could have been the last to truly buy into it in a real way since everyone who followed was reared in the post- Sept.11 world, a recession and just general malaise.
Let England Shake is both a timeless record and one that perfectly describes the state we are in. Harvey intentionally did this with her lyrics—she wrote about conflict in a way that could describe WWI to Afghanistan: the homesick yearning of soldiers (“Last Living Rose”) to the toll of war on a country and its people (“The Glorious Land”). It was interesting to read that Harvey delineated from her normal songwriting techniques to complete Let England Shake—she wrote the lyrics first, extensively researching several conflicts. War, famine and struggle: these are timeless themes because suffering seems to be the human state. There are several tracks that allude to specific conflicts (three songs allude to Gallipoli), however she believes in not revealing much of her specific influences or thought processes—she believes listeners should extract their own meaning.
“In the Dark Places” makes me think of everything that has happened the past ten years. I remember several people who signed up for the army when graduating high school. They thought it was just a logical way to pay for college, only planning to be a weekend warrior, and they became some of the first to die in Afghanistan. I think the reason my generation is so profoundly fucked up is as simple as that—we were promised everything, only to find out the well was dry. We grew up in a time of plenty (that is if you were of a certain socioeconomic status, I mean, Reaganomics, guys, come on) and as such, we were told that we could achieve the American Dream and then some—there was no limit to what we could do. We were coddled into believing that if we just studied hard and went to college we would get our perfect job and we’d then buy a perfect home for the perfect family to live in. I don’t know how many of my creative, smart and amazing contemporaries struggle to get by. I keep reading trend piece after trend piece about how disaffected our generation is; trend pieces are also telling me it’s why some of the most clever women I know are single. It’s our collective cross to bear.
We are now out of Iraq, Osama Bin Laden is dead. However I can’t help how I feel when I hear Harvey’s final vibrato of the track: “Our young men/Hid with guns/In the forests/And in the dark places/And not one man has/And not one woman has/Revealed the secrets/Of this world.” As a generation we’ve known nothing but war, financial ruin and heartbreak and the punch line is that we’re no closer to an answer.
Harvey has stated that Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is her least favorite record. It was her attempt at pop music, or in the very least, pop music according to her. It strikes me as interesting that a record that is mostly about love and hope is her least favorite and Let England Shake is the one that truly moved her.
I can understand why. I can’t imagine a world where Sept. 11 didn’t happen, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq never occurred or where the American auto industry was always amazingly prosperous. That was not the world I grew up in—and as I am now in the twilight of my youth, I can appreciate that. I wouldn’t want to live in that world because I wouldn’t be me. None of the people I love most would be who they are. We might be flawed, we might be going through the toughest of times, but we’re beautiful with all of our collected scars. We will weather the storm together.
The final two songs on Stories are my favorites on the record and probably the best advice for living in these fucked up times: “Horses in my Dreams” and “We Float.” “Horses” is a slow, musically simple piece that pretty much devastates me every time I listen to it. The lyrics are repetitive but engage so thoroughly. “Horses in my dreams/Like waves like the sea/On the tracks of the train/Set myself free again.” She then tells the listener “I have pulled myself clear.” I always think of that lyric after I get over something traumatic—I’m safe, the hurt’s all gone; I have pulled myself clear. It’s a reminder that you are always free.
After the baptismal realization of “Horses,” she launches into “We Float,” which edicts to “Take life as it comes.” It is a song of unbridled hope but acknowledges failings—“This is kind of about you/This is kind of about me/ We just kind of lost our way/We were looking to be free.” The best you can do is just take everything, good and bad, and run with it, hoping you can reach Nirvana.
As I look at the final days of this decade, I can’t help but wonder what will happen next.
I’ll take it as it comes.
Kim Huston writes about music, jokes, basketball, social issues and sometimes feelings here.
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