Something Good #15: Unstuck in Time
PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which I am pretty confident saying is my favourite album of the 21st Century so far, is now 10 years old. I don’t remember what originally brought me to it—I had always been peripherally aware and appreciative of Harvey’s music but had never specifically counted myself as a fan—but the record got its talons into me and I have never been able to shake it.
I think on this anniversary it deserves an appreciation.
Let England Shake is about war, empire, and national identity, but it’s also funny and mystical and weird and jangly. On a musical level: it rips. It reminds me of the Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, both also records that excavate the British psyche while still being perfect pop music.
Most of the songs on the album are set during World War I. I’ve always found it interesting how many pop songs address this particular conflict, while so few are about World War II—which otherwise, in film and TV, utterly dominates pop culture (one of my favourite films notwithstanding).
Maybe it’s because the “Great” War was one that was understood through the poetry of the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, while WWII lives in newsreels and propaganda films. Pop lyricism arguably has more affinity with poetry than the moving image.
Let England Shake turns the listener into a ghost of sorts, flitting between the minds of bewildered, shell-shocked soldiers in the trenches, far from home and completely lost—unable to understand what’s happening to them as they march into the buzzsaw of the 20th Century.
I've seen and done things I want to forget;
I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat
Blown and shot out beyond belief
Arms and legs were in the trees
(from “The Words That Maketh Murder”)
Or the salty opening lines of “The Last Living Rose:”
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey, damp filthiness of ages
And battered books
And fog rolling down behind the mountains
On the graveyards and dead sea captains
Writing this now, I wonder if these voices are meant to be of the living. They could be ghosts themselves. Maybe we’re experiencing their last thoughts as their souls evaporate above the battlefields. Certainly some, like the soldier in “Hanging in the Wire,” watching the mist rise over the battlefield while he lies tangled in barbed wire, are somewhere between life and death.
Sometimes we leave the minds of these individual soldiers and the perspective widens, tuning into the hum of some anguished universal wavelength. These tracks feel like mystical folk songs or anthems—primal and otherworldly expressions of the traumatized collective unconscious. From “The Glorious Land:”
What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is orphaned children
What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is deformed children
For the album’s visual accompaniment, Harvey worked with war photographer Seamus Murphy, who until then had never directed a music video (or any motion picture film at all, as far as I can tell). A genius team-up. Murphy’s films are collage-like impressions of places and people… empty houses… faces… farm animals… cloudy skies… broken up with bits of singing or musicianship. They are truly haunted, and very special artifacts, and they remind me of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book about wandering around Suffolk and thinking about things. (Also one of my favourite books ever, so go check it out if that sounds good to you.) I recommend you seek them out—unfortunately some of them seem to have been removed from her YouTube channel and website, but there are still a few there.
So there’s one thing that happens across this album that has kept bringing me back to it over the last decade. And that’s what I want to call, I guess, a sort of temporal disruption or incursion.
There are these moments where Harvey subtly shifts out of the period and into another era entirely. For instance, in “The Words That Maketh Murder” she borrows the line “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” from Eddie Cochrane’s 1958 “Summertime Blues.” An incongruous reference for a song from the point of view of a 1916-era infantryman, but the album is peppered with these little disruptions, whether they’re lyrical or melodic references or even actual samples. “The Glorious Land” is built on a sample of the drums from The Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” and haunted by out-of-time bursts of trumpet fanfare that YouTube commenters absolutely hate but which I think has a brilliantly dislocating effect.
And on the album’s second-last song, “Written on the Forehead,” Harvey does something that I find close to transcendental.
As the song begins, we suddenly realize we are no longer in the trenches of the first World War, but somewhere much closer in time, if not space.
People throwing dinars at the bellydancers
In a sad circus by a trench of burning oil
People throw belongings, a lifetime's earnings
Amongst the scattered rubbish and suitcases on the sidewalk
The trenches of 1916 melt away. We are in the present day, in Iraq, or maybe Afghanistan. The song’s narrator is talking to “an old man by the generator,” who tells her, “War is here in our beloved city,” as Harvey’s vocals are backed up by a sample from Niney the Observer’s 1971 reggae track “Blood and Fire.”
Let it burn, let it burn.
Time itself collapses, and with it the illusion of distance. Where, and when, have we been all this time?
I’m reminded of a series of panels in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell that have always stuck with me, when the murderous William Gull and his victim peer through a window in Victorian London and into the room of a confused man watching TV in the 1960s—a brief and unexplained moment of time travel1.
In the following, and final song, “The Colour of the Earth,” we are back in the trenches of Gallipoli. But that feeling of being unmoored in non-linear time remains. It is an act of what I can only describe as time travel, and to me, it’s as magical as art can get.
Louis was my dearest friend
Fighting in the ANZAC trench
Louis ran forth from the line
I never saw him again
Later in the dark
I thought I heard Louis' voice
Calling for his mother, then me
But I couldn't get to him
Something about war has a way of disrupting the flow of time—at least in art. Chris Hedges may be right that “war is a force that gives us meaning,” but it also obliterates it. If it can destroy people, societies, laws, norms, places, everything we know, why not our sense of linear time?
In Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, the Holocaust can only be understood by experiencing it in reverse. And perhaps most famously, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five grapples with the Allied bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut witnessed firsthand, through the fictionalized character of Billy Pilgrim, a young, gormless soldier who becomes “unstuck in time” and experiences life out of order, or perhaps all at once, helplessly jumping from moment to moment in his lifetime. (He also is kidnapped by aliens from Tralfamadore, who, while they didn’t cause his unstuck-ness, live in all four dimensions simultaneously—“remembering” both the past and the future—and are able to explain his predicament to him.)
Like, I’m sure, many people, I read Slaugherhouse-Five in high school and was very impressed by it, but haven’t returned to it since. But I was curious about Ryan North’s recent graphic novel adaptation, so I picked up it and was pretty blown away by it.
The graphic novel form is perfect for a story of a character unstuck in time. More than film or prose, comics allow us to be in more than one place, or time, simultaneously. Like the Tralfamadorian view of time as an inert, four-dimensional crystal, a comic’s panels exist simultaneously in front of our eyes, moving and frozen at the same time.
In other news: Reader SamECircle drew my attention to Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, a historical antecedent to the dialogue-less Star Trek: The Next Generation edits I posted a few weeks ago. From an essay by Brian Frye:
Rose Hobart consists almost entirely of footage taken from East of Borneo, a 1931 jungle B-film starring the nearly forgotten actress Rose Hobart. Cornell condensed the 77-minute feature into a 20-minute short, removing virtually every shot that didn't feature Hobart, as well as all of the action sequences. In so doing, he utterly transforms the images, stripping away the awkward construction and stilted drama of the original to reveal the wonderful sense of mystery that saturates the greatest early genre films.
This week’s #nojacketsrequired submission comes to us by way of Fanny Singer. It’s a lovely one—though I have to say I love the original cover. If you have a dust jacket discovery to share, please email it directly to email@example.com, as Substack’s email server tends to bounce big attachments.
(One day I’ll have to write about Nick Cave’s website, where he responds to emailed questions with such open-hearted honesty that even a query as mundane as “Do you enjoy magic? Card tricks, stage illusions, that kind of thing” can result in an answer that may emotionally devastate you, as it did me.)
Every Wednesday I’ll send you Something Good. If you like what you’re seeing here, please tell a friend.
From an interview with Alan Moore: “The scene is based upon an interpretation of a ghost story recounted in Jack the Ripper – One Hundred Years of Mystery by Peter Underwood, amongst other places. The story, as related by a Mr. Chapman… is that on at least four separate occasions spread over a number of years, he pulled back his curtain to witness a man and a woman disappearing along the passageway of number 29 Hanbury Street. According to Mr. Chapman, it was always the same pair performing exactly the same actions, with the woman looking rather old and bent as the man, dressed in a heavy top coat and a tall hat, helped her along the passageway towards the back yard.
“These apparitions would, it seems, usually occur in the very early hours of morning during the autumn months. In the interpretation of the event here, I have chosen to have Gull’s ‘aura-phase’ hallucinations show him a vision of Mr. Chapman looking back at him from the future, thus suggesting possibilities beyond those of the conventional ghost story and more in keeping with the themes of From Hell.”