The Words that Maketh Murder: Voicing Trauma in the Work of PJ Harvey. Sarah Boak (University of Southampton)
[abstract] The traumatised body features heavily in the work of PJ Harvey; bodies in trauma are explored on both an individual and collective level. This paper investigates the relationship between trauma, embodiment, disembodiment and the voice, in her recorded work. The corporeal experience of violence is explored through an analysis of the grain of the voice, and through bodily narratives.
The separation of the voice from the body as a post-traumatic strategy of coping is central to trauma studies literature, as subjectivity and identity become disembodied as part of this coping mechanism. Analysis of vocal strategies and technique in Harvey’s work, shows how the voice can be both embodied and disembodied in narratives of trauma.
The social construction of femininity has a particular relationship to violence. However, the material explored by Harvey also considers violence perpetrated by women. The upheaval of gender norms around femininity and violence in her work, and the switch from female victim to female perpetrator, finds its most potent expression in the embodied voice, where women sing narratives of violence. Kristeva’s explorations of the subject/object boundary permit an investigation of how vocal strategies of embodiment or disembodiment have diverse effects on narratives. On one hand, bodies can be brought to the fore of the narrative, connecting the voice and subjectivity back to the body, and presenting an opportunity for healing. On the other hand, the voice can be disembodied; distanced from the source of the sound, or from trauma itself.
Sarah opens with an historical overview of Polly Harvey’s work over 20 years, noting the tendency toward darker lyric themes, including ideas of body, embodiment and trauma. Citing Barthes as part of her theoretical framework, the broader PhD project is then described as the discussion of artists who explore bodily/corporeal experiences in their lyrics and sound worlds.
The paper frames its analyses through two songs ‘The Words that maketh Murder’ and ‘Down By The Water’. She notes that Let England Shake was ‘a modern protest album’, exploring power relations at many different levels. This is contextualised by a ten-years-previously reference to PH’s first Mercury prize acceptance speech on Sept 11th 2001. Vocal style development over time is noted, including a move toward a more breathy vocal tone in recent years. Harvey’s reflections on vocal tone are highlighted (see this interview)
“I knew that I wanted the music to offset the weight of the words. That was very important. I wanted the music to be full of energy and to be very uplifting and unifying, almost insightful in its creation of energy. It took me a long time to find out how to sing such words because to sing it in the wrong voice would have given it the wrong feeling – maybe too self-important and dogmatic. I wanted the songs to be much more ambiguous than that. This was the way that the language was best moved from lip to ear.” (Harvey, 2011)
We then hear an excerpt of TWTMM (2011) with the following lyric;
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
I’ve seen and done things I want to forget
Coming from an unearthly place
Longing to see a woman’s face
Instead of the words that gather pace
Here, Sarah cites Barthes’ idea of embodiment, and discusses what this means when the protagonist deliberately distances herself from the narrative (as in ‘I’ve seen and done things I want to forget’). The theme of the ‘abject’ is explored – the narrator trying to erase the experience and the trauma, in the context that the body is literally dismembered – in the lyric’s imagery and in its narrative. Harvey’s song quotes the Eddie Cochran’s line ‘What if I take my problem to the United Nations’ and the intertextual meanings of this phrase are analysed. The body becomes the object; the voice becomes the subject. What happens when the voice of a violent perpetrator becomes disembodied?
Next we move onto ‘Down By The Water’ (1995) and the lyric representation of embodied sound;
‘And now I moan, and now I holler’. This being early-career PJH, Sarah notes the strong vocal performance and its relationship to the assertive narration. An audio example is played, with the whispered repeated phrase ‘Little fish, big fish swimming in the water / Come back here man, give me my daughter’ The paper then cites Lacasse’s idea of expression of emotion through paralanguage – non-verbal vocal sounds and (for example) whispers. The conspiratorial nature of the act of whispering is evident in the track, and through the outro vocal loop the mother character is embodied through paralinguistic means. The daughter becomes the object in this story, and is interestingly absent as a narrator. The trauma is not resolved – no healing is evident.