PJ Harvey’s “The Wheel” Zooms in on the Global Violence ‘Let England Shake’ Contemplated From Afar


“It’s a tribute to Harvey’s alchemical success in making invigorating music from bleak material that the audience doesn’t just walk out the door and straight into the Thames,” wrote the Guardian , following PJ Harvey’s 2015 preview concert of new material and poetry reading from her recently released book, The Hollow of the Hand. The comment reads as particularly appropriate in light of the release of “The Wheel,” the first track on her upcoming album The Hope Six Demolition Project. “The Wheel” features a call-and-response lyric about the disappearance of 28,000 children “lost upon a revolving wheel… of metal chairs” and an outro in which Harvey repeats “and watch them fade out” more than 20 times.

The album draws its material from the same visits to Kosovo, Washington DC, and Afghanistan that inspired Harvey’s collection of poetry. And like the poems in her book, the preview performance broke her new songs into place-based segments —”The Wheel” belonged to the Kosovo section.

The actual numerical lyric — sung by Mick Harvey (no relation) in response to Polly Jean’s “Hey little children don’t disappear” — is, “I heard it was 28,000.” The number itself could be hearsay, an attempt to understand the scope of a tragedy by quantifying it, as we all tend to. As Polly Jean sings descriptive fragments of desolation, Mick’s voice continues to interject with the rumor of an indefinite number. The point of this number is perhaps its arbitrariness, its vacancy — the number has no value but for how it could relate to devastation in any of the three places Harvey conjures. It bears noting that this number seems more directly correlated with statistics on minors in the other two places (28,000: the number of troops NATO anticipated deploying to Kosovo; 28,000: the number of street-working children in Kabul as determined by a survey in the late ’90s; 28,000: the number of minors killed by firearms in the U.S. between 2002 and 2012). In a track from Harvey’s last album, she similarly invoked children as the cost of forms of militarism, meditating on the human interconnectedness of site-specific tragedies.

On “The Glorious Land” from 2011’s Let England Shake (Harvey’s rumination on war, which this first track from Demolition Project recalls sonically), a similar call-and-response heard Harvey using America and England’s agricultural heritages — the sowing and plowing of their land — as metaphors for the countries’ colonial and war-mongering proclivities, concluding that the “glorious fruit[s] of our land” are “deformed children” and “orphaned children.” (Said children could, of course, refer either to those who serve militarized countries that use the bodies of their citizens frivolously — or to the bodies they frivolously destroy on the other side.)

As with that track, the national focus of “The Wheel” seems intentionally multiple. Harvey is interested in the specifics of landscape and culture, but when it comes to carnage, her aim seems to be a larger implication of the human race, and the ways we’ve structured global power to perpetuate violence.

Afghanistan and Kosovo are both war-torn (and both the Kosovo War, fought predominantly between the ethnic-cleansing Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the Soviet-Afghan War ultimately became matters of global implication). It’s fitting that Harvey would have her eye turned to Washington, DC as a center of global politics, a place that has made itself omnipotent and entrenched in the goings-on of just about every other place. America’s own urban infrastructure is not literally war-torn, but rather torn by wealth stratification, and the war that’s continuously fought on American soil is American civilians’ massacre of one another with firearms. The “revolving wheel” in question in the song could very well be referring to that of an actual revolver.

“The Glorious Land” was taut and simple, with the exception of a littering of crude shards of a trumpet reveille that announced the causes of global strife — and sees “tanks and feet” marching outward toward the “victory” of destruction. “The Wheel,” however, is chaotic and propulsive, with saxophone spurting like open wounds across the song. If “The Glorious Land” sonically captured the rigid plans for military violence that ultimately lead to chaos, “The Wheel” sounds like it takes place in the thick of it. All of Harvey’s Let England Shake sounded like contemplation from afar, reeling at an abstract glimpse into the massacre of history. (Harvey had discussed developing the right voice for that album — and that she’d chosen one that was austerely neutral, almost aloof, allowing the harrowing lyrics to sneak right up on you and gun you down).

In a press release announcing her book of poetry — the one attached to The Hope Six Demolition Project — Harvey says, “Gathering information from secondary sources felt too far removed for what I was trying to write about.” With its raging, 80-second intro, clapped rhythm, and whirling, dizzying pace, “The Wheel” certainly does away with that remove. If “The Glorious Land” contemplated the toll omnipotent militarism might take on the young — and how they might thereafter perpetuate the legacy — “The Wheel” gets within the scene of violence; that scene may bear some concrete details relating to her experience in Kosovo, but it also happens to sound like everywhere, all at once.