PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album ‘Let England Shake’ was well received and she earned numerous accolades for her voluble yet veiled political activism. But her latest single ‘Shaker Aamer’ — as the name suggests — makes no attempt to mask its intended purpose. Judging by the refrain in the outro, Harvey wants the world to not forget the last British resident detained in the ‘world’s most famous prison’.
Reminiscent of Jefferson Airplane’s style, the song reminds one of White Rabbit in its first few seconds, but clocking in at under three minutes, it still becomes a monodrone of flanger-filled guitar strums. Much of it is, however, buoyed by Harvey’s voice, unique in its tone and texture, as it manages to simultaneously soothe and shatter the nerves of the listener — the kind of voice that would draw a soldier towards it in the midst of battle. The dissonant delay on the vocals adds to the eeriness, but an otherwise sparse production lends the impression the song has been let out to dry in the sun for too long.
The lyrics are simple and literal. The opening lines, ‘No water for three days / I cannot sleep or stay awake’ indicate she does not mean to beat around the bush. By choosing to write in first person, Harvey has taken some risk and she does well to own the lyrical content. She highlights what the prison is so infamous for: ‘With metal tubes we are force fed / I honestly wish I was dead’. Again, Harvey’s discordant vocal delivery makes the song more authentic — a medieval minstrel narrating a bitter tragedy.
But despite this, the song never takes off. It neither soars nor plummets. It attempts to spear through the heart of the listener but falls just short. Harvey has already made headlines with the song so she has achieved one aspect of it. And that is what it will be remembered for, because the soundscape isn’t as memorable.
The song is available for download from her official website.
Who is Shaker Aamer?
Born in Saudi Arabia, 44-year-old Shaker Aamer was arrested from Afghanistan in November 2001 and shifted to Guantánamo Bay in February the next year. It has been nearly 11-and-a-half years since he has been detained without any charges. Although he has been cleared for release by both the Bush and Obama administrations, for some reason Aamer still languishes in jail — a place where he has reportedly fought for the physical and mental well-being of his fellow inmates. The British government has claimed to have been in talks with its US counterpart to negotiate Aamer’s release, but has chosen to not make the progress public.
The revolution in music
Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
Written in 1962, this song poses rhetorical questions about war, peace and freedom. The underlying socio-political theme of the lyrics, in which he is searching for answers, is reflected in most of Dylan’s work during that era. The song later became symbolic of the US civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
Revolution by The Beatles
Amid the chaos that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, with the Vietnam War raging on one hand and the French government brought to its knees by student protests in Paris on the other, The Beatles released their first explicitly political song in 1968.
Dhinak Dhinak by The Baighairat Brigade
Released in 2013 by a group of young musicians, this song is a tongue-in-cheek critique of the power of the Pakistani military. It was, however, soon banned without any official explanation. The trio had also released another satirical number Aalu Anday earlier that targeted the political power games in the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 18th, 2013.