Credit: Seamus Murphy
It’s tough to dive entirely into PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” without a history lesson, and the richer the story, the deeper you go.
The singer-songwriter has it explained more fully here
but open your books to World War I, during the Gallipoli campaign, a battle that magnified the cruelty of Western land and naval wars, an unjust eight months of enormous losses. The Ottoman Empire struck back hard against the Allied forces from England and France (and, notably, from Australia and New Zealand); the latter underestimated their ability to swiftly end the attack, stemming from failures and miscalcuations of its leaders and disasterous weather. The result was hundreds of thousands of casualties.
Harvey takes on the voice of those soldiers and sufferers, hungry for home, through emotive artifacts and battle zone observations. It’s a relief, the way she separates the person of Polly Jean and insinuates the not-so-straw-men of history, removing her from a pastor’s pulpit and into the “trenches of burning oil.” “Let it burn” she concludes in “Written on the Forehead,” sampling from Niney and the Observer’s reggae track “Blood and Fire.” The apocalypse of this creepily soaring rocker could easily be a Massive Attack – no pun intended – track that Never Was.
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Her howls from those bunkers are pushed way up front on most of the record, with many of her reverb-laden sighs battling the background noise she creates for herself. A bugle announces war in “The Glorious Land,” panned to the back, an odd and starling addition to the audio. The hollow, pillow-less kick drum on high point “The Last Living Rose,” shoots her narrative through “drunken beatings,” the “quiver” of saxophones and a Telecaster making for a riveting sad tale. The voice of Middle Eastern singer Said El Kurdy contrasts with, then meets, Harvey’s on “England.”
It’s this last cue that adds to the natural assumption that “Let England Shake” isn’t just a record about a particular war from a particular time. The “bitter taste” of her home country is in the mouth of fighters around the world today, but Harvey won’t so much as utter those frontiers’ names – Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else for that matter.
Strength in ambiguity – lines like "Pack up your troubles, let's head out / To the Fountain of Death and splash about” from the title track – is what propels the trauma. It continues the still-beating “Heart of Darkness” oral tradition, interestingly from a songwriter who is 1) not a soldier and 2) is a woman, whose gender’s voice is eerily quiet among modern discussions of war. But her lyrics are practically without gender, and songs are often aided by Mick Harvey (who works frequently with Nick Cave) and longtime collaborator John Parish.
The latter leads an especially poignant “Colour of the Earth,” a salute to those we never see again, militaristically folky, a pastoral English hymn. It’s an apt closer to an album that succeeds in humanizing now-dead fighters; after a full record of it, the listener is left disassociated and shell-shocked, which is a sensation, in itself, only human.
“The Words That Maketh Murder” invokes The Trashmen’s hit “Surfin’ Bird” (bird bird bird, bird is the word), a sarcastic wink at the innocent ‘60s pop-rock group sound; it bites at the grossness of war realities with lines like “soldiers fell like lumps of meat” and, futilely groping, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”
Harvey and producer Flood found beautiful edits, leaving in vivid and happy recording accidents, some purposefully uncomfortable, some bravely peaking, like on the neo-classical intro to “On Battleship Hill.” An electric guitar bangs in on the 1 for the scary beaches of “All and Everyone,” packing a horrifying punch. “Bitter Branches” lacks that austere cohesion, though it has some of my favorite lyrics on the whole set. Thankfully, it’s countered with angelic “Hanging in the Wire.”
All in, Harvey never shies from her subjects, resulting in an almost porn-ish obsession of grief in war, the trainwreck you can’t help to look at because you can hear it through her sharp voice and live-bred mix. It’s a very strong political – rather, apolitical – album, one that has been in long wanting: war for and with England, past, present and future, put into the most galling, raw and wonderful trappings. It's a huge success for Vagrant, who has long been expanding its hard rock roster of records, but one especially for Harvey.