“The Words That Maketh Murder” – PJ Harvey
The Words That Maketh Murder was released on the 6th of February, 2011 and written by PJ Harvey. It appears on her eighth studio album, “Let England Shake”, which was released on Island Records worldwide, and Vagrant in the United States1. It features PJ Harvey on vocals, saxophone and auto-harp, long-time collaborator John Parish on guitar, trombone and Mick Harvey on bass, harmonica and drums2. It was produced by Flood, who has produced 4 other PJ Harvey albums. “Let England Shake” was recorded in a Church located in Dorset, UK3.
The song starts with a sole auto-harp playing a string of descending chords, that make way for the main chord progression and the beginning of the percussion. The percussion has a heavily reggae influenced beat (which is a common occurrence in the album), and the auto harp follows the beat.
PJ Harvey’s vocals cut in and are delivered in a subtle but wailing manner, coupled with the main minor chord, it transforms a reggae influenced song in to a haunting song about war and death (“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget; I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat”). Obviously channeling a man at war (“Longing for a woman’s face”), PJ Harvey talks about the atrocities of war, trying to create a visual picture of war. The lyrics are delivered one line at a time and sung on the steady chord, while there is a break in the lyrics for each descending chord progression. Finishing the first verse with the line (“The words that maketh murder”), it signal a start to the chorus.
Right as the chorus starts, we hear the trombone (played by John Parish)and the saxophone (played by PJ Harvey), which holds a fairly straight beat, when compared to the drums. PJ sings the first repeated line (“These, these, these are the words”) on her own, while a backing vocalist can be heard singing on the next line (“The words that maketh murder”) along with PJ. The first line is delivered in a progressively more distraught manner each time it is sung, which gives the chorus a crescendo towards the end, while the instrumentation remains steady.
The main vocals stop and we hear the backing vocalists come to the forefront, singing the chorus lines.
The auto-harp fades out as PJ’s vocals cut back in, mirroring the first line of the first verse (“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget”). The bass can now be heard, which along with the bass drum almost sounding like a beating heart. The vocals are delivered in a softer way, but as the auto-harp slowly fades in the vocals go back to the wailing style that is heard throughout the rest of the song.
The chorus’ instrumentation remains the same, but with changed lyrics (“Death lingering, stunk, Flies swarming everyone, Over the whole summit peak, Flesh quivering in the heat.
This was something else again. I fear it cannot be explained.”), that sound even more haunting than the previous ones.
There is a key change and we start to hear backing vocalists sing the line, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”, which is borrowed from the Eddie Cochran song Summertime Blues4. PJ then joins, with a wailing and distraught voice. The drum beat stays the same, but the most notable difference is the addition of a slide guitar that has an echo and sounds like a cross between a cry and a wail, it’s not loud and almost sounds like it’s trying to be louder than it is, like it is trying to “be heard”. The song abruptly stops and all that can be heard is the remaining instruments’ echoes.
The vocals are something that really need to be examined, PJ Harvey’s previous work has a very different vocal delivery. The wailing nature of them is completely different to anything she has done before and it’s the first thing that hits you about the song, if you’ve heard any previous PJ Harvey albums. She explained, “…the nature of the words are often addressing very dark weighty subjects. I couldn’t sing those 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. I could visualise the action taking place on the stage, and the narrator’s on the side relaying the information of the action. I had to find the right voice to carry out the action as if I were the voyeur, and had to relay the story.”. Her voice carries an amount of emotion that few singers can, and at times (the second verse) it is scaled back to accentuate the emotion in the crescendos and the more prominent lines (“The words that make, the words that make, Murder.”).
The first instrumentation that you hear is the auto-harp. It’s a rare instrument to hear at the forefront of a modern day song, and gives the song a unique and old feel. The auto-harp echoes throughout the song and gives it a very holy sound, which is very fitting as the song was recorded in a church. The backing beat is influenced by reggae and stays steady for the entire song, to make up for the steady beat the crescendo’s and changes in the song are achieved by changes of the emotion in the vocals and a key change in the outro. The drums also sound like an warped version of a march and I think it’s vital to the song that the drums are steady (like a marching song) throughout as it gives it a war/army feeling to it. In the chorus a trombone is heard and further makes the song sound like a heavily warped marching band song. The auto-harp (largely playing a minor chord) and almost weeping vocals allows the song to sound sorrowful, this, coupled with the unexpected steady march-like drums allows for a juxtaposition of both order and the effects of war.
The strength of the song is in the lyrics and the instrumentation enhances them, making them more powerful. Such an example is the slide guitar in the outro section, it sounds restrained and imprisoned, almost as if wants to be heard, it wails and weeps, but never really comes to the forefront of the song, seemingly answering the repeated lyric “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”. Lyrics like “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat” are immensely powerful and are hard to miss when listening to the song, the fact that they really hit the listener allows for the lyrics/vocals to stay in the forefront of the entire song, because the listener is always being forced to listen to the lyrics. The recounting of the atrocities of war, “Blown and shot out beyond belief. Arms and legs were in the trees.”, is unspecific in terms of an exact war. What this tells me is that the song is about war in general, not being editorial or critical, just explaining the harsh nature of war. In an interview, she explained that she “…was looking at artwork like Goya’s “Disasters of War” series and Salvador Dali’s pictures from the Spanish Civil War era.”. Why an album about wars came about at this time, is probably largely due to the wars in bother Iraq and Afghanistan, speaking in an interview, PJ Harvey said that she was influenced a lot by war photography Seamus Murphy (who spent almost a decade in Afghanistan), she added, “I was extremely moved by an exhibition I saw of his called ‘A Darkness Visible’. So much that I actually I got in touch with him because I wanted to speak to him more about his experiences being there in Afghanistan.”.
Instead of using the lyrics to make an ugly album, which could have worked with the harsh lyrics and her ability to make amazing, yet harsh and abrasive music (see “Pig Will Not” on PJ Harvey’s collaboration album with John Parish, “A Woman A Man Walked By”), she used instruments such as the auto-harp which sounds quite beautiful. She explains, “It’s to do with the world we live in. That world is a brutal one and full of war. It’s also full of many wonderful things and love and hope. And I tried to offset the brutal language with very beautiful music.”.
In terms of politically charged music, modern times have been relatively plentiful. Artists like Anti-Flag and Rage Against The Machine have a whole back catalogue full of political music, in fact when a leading US radio programmer allegedly (they later denied the allegations5) released a list of songs that they felt were unsuitable to play after the vents of 9/11, they listed all songs by Rage Against The Machine6. Even though the list was denied to be real, it shows how much of an impression a song can have on someone and the fact that people believed that a list was a possible scenario, tells me that it wasn’t that outlandish to suggest such a thing. Other acts like Neil Young, Green Day have written whole albums criticising the US government, with “Living With War” and “American Idiot” respectively. While artists like The Decemberists and Arcade Fire have written songs like “16 Military Wives” and “Intervention”, both protest songs about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The reason I love this song as a political piece of music, is because while a lot of politically charged songs sound preachy, “The Words That Maketh Murder” does not come off in that way. It’s a song about war, not a song necessarily critiquing war, which allows the song’s message to be entirely up to the listener. The song slowly broods and flows describing war, while not vocalising any opinions (in fact, the lyrics are channeling a man at war), not until the end does it become a song that seemingly become critical, with the lyric, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”. It never voices opinion, I find sometimes gets in the way of the message of the song, by never voicing an opinion, it forces the listener to actually think about the subject, which in this case is a delicate subject.
What sets apart an album like “Let England Shake” and in particular the song ‘The Words That Maketh Murder”, is the fact that it is an album/song about war not an album/song protesting war. It doesn’t tell people to “impeach the president” (see “Impeach The President” by Neil Young), which sounds preachy, it describes what war is like. But more importantly it is made by someone living in the UK (a country that has a major presence in both wars), while it is not uncommon to hear a politically charged album from an American in recent years, it is rare to hear one from a UK artist and more specifically an English artist. In fact The Guardian writer Matthew Herbert wrote about “a defining silence in political music” and contended that “In an age of such infinite and brilliant possibilities of technique, combined with the urgent politics of now, why have music and musicians lost the urge to challenge, investigate, invent and unite?”, and while I disagree with this in the case of American music, it has most definitely hit the nail on the head, with respect to modern UK music.
Statements are all about timing, the UK is involved in two wars and yet there are essentially no songs about the subject made by UK artists. PJ Harvey has released “The Words That Maketh Murder” about war when it seems that no-one else is willing to do so. The choice to make the song about no specific war has the ability to stay relevant and not age badly, something that a lot of political/protest songs have succumb to. Coupled with the harsh lyrics and beautiful yet sorrowful music, I really do believe that “The Words That Maketh Murder” is one of the best songs ever written about war.