PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
TS Eliot influenced Harvey to firstly fabricate lyrics as pure poetry, before setting them to music afterwards. The result is clean, clear and above all unaffected imagery that catalogues roses, hill-tops, earth, war-grounds and wastelands. Her research on the history of conflict, citing testimonies from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, makes for a highly dense mire of lyrical content operating on a number of emotional levels. But whilst these are instances of modern warfare, excluding the only direct Iraq song “Written On The Forehead”, generally speaking this isn’t really a modern album. Every other line emotes exactly what I’d imagine World War I & II to sound like.
Every drum groove sounds like its’ fate was destined to be programmed on a laptop and performed by a machine, but as Harvey is keen to accentuate, our glorious country isn’t ploughed by iron ploughs, rather by tanks and feet. A haunting marriage of man and machine with all the connotations of conflict we despise. So it is perhaps rather fitting then, that these electronically charged beats are played precise and humanely by a real person instead. Thankfully all clichéd tribal-war-drums are sagaciously avoided across the concise 40 minutes and 15 seconds.
Like all good creative types, Harvey tends to relish on the discovery of a theme, whether it’s a musical or lyrical one, and explores that motif or topic right to the end of its’ tether. She does it on the sometimes overlooked White Chalk. We also hear appearances from regular collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parish, joining in for the coda of “The Words That Maketh Murder”. Although both amusing and deeply depressing, I don’t like the length in which she holds the U phoneme in the phrase “take my problem to the united nations”. It feels so unnatural and incorrect, if music can be such a thing. An album and career pinnacle, but also a niggling little pet-hate, if you will.
Moreover Let England Shake is practically bursting at the seams with heartfelt, battle-winning highlights. “The Glorious Land” and “On Battleship Hill” contain the contagious grooves of the album that I spoke of previously, and conjure reminisces of a similar vein to Portishead. The way some instruments sound perhaps a bit out of tune feels very Tom Waitsy, and only accentuates Harvey’s raw but impetuous, DIY demeanour.
Fittingly, the last two songs might just be the idyllic album closer of English pastures far and wide; ‘Hanging In The Wire’ and “Written On The Forehead” sit together as a bitter-sweet pair and must be taken so (like “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” is often referred to as one singular track), their contrast lying in delicacy and ballsy rowdiness.
Polly Jean Harvey is now, in my mind, firmly set as the mistress of reinvention: “I couldn’t sing [the songs] in a rich strong mature voice without it sounding completely wrong. So I had to slowly find the voice”, and boy did she find it. Let England Shake is her best, and easily the album of the year so far.
Written On The Forehead
- James Godwin, February 15th, 2011