“Let England Shake” by PJ Harvey
Paradoxically, considering the occasion, in the weeks leading to Remembrance Sunday, there seemed to be a kind of fascism abroad concerning the wearing of the poppy. A very British and understated aide-memoire has turned into a celebrity fashion statement with an unseemly race to be the first to be seen wearing it. What has prompted this and the almost sordid fascination with our dead military?
Those of us who remember the “Troubles” don’t recall any Wootton Bassett – now Royal Wootton Bassett – moments as a sad parade of the fallen were repatriated. Even later conflicts like Kuwait and Iraq elicited a respectful, quiet acknowledgement from a grateful country rather than heartbreaking close-ups of the recently bereaved. The awful effect has been to diminish the horror and dilute the emotions as we are fed a slow drip that seems to proclaim: “There is no other way”.
Abroad is the creeping sound of sabres being rattled rather than flags being waved and the disturbing feeling of being softened up for even more. Stirring marches were the order of the First World War and sweetly sung love letters were the leitmotif of the Second but a big change of music underlined the war in Vietnam as a better educated generation asked awkward questions regarding the politics of warfare. Vietnam will be remembered as much for its protest songs as for America’s overreaching imperialism.
Which brings me to an obvious question. Who is representing the voice of current protest? Well, marching to the front is a West Country girl with a few questions regarding bloodshed and mayhem. PJ Harvey has won awards and plaudits and a very real affection from those who appreciate her musicianship as much as for her wacky English eccentric personality.
Her uncompromising song writing is hewn from the same woodland fairyland as Kate Bush and Linda Thompson and her stated influences range from Bjork and Tori Amos to Ralph Vaughan Williams. In 2001, she won the Mercury Music Prize for her album, “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea”, and this year she became the first artist to win the award twice for her latest album, “Let England Shake”.
Now let me be quite honest here, previous to hearing this album I had heard very little of Harvey’s work and, what little I had, seemed inaccessible (that is to say, I was too lazy to sit down and listen to it properly). However, being introduced to Elbow and Antony and the Johnsons via the Mercury made me question what I may be missing.
Although all tracks have a common theme, this is not an out-and-out anti-war rant. Instead, it presents a quiet disappointment at what we have become in our acceptance of warfare and bloodshed and an overwhelming sadness at our inability to find a better solution. With no optimism and no happy endings, it would be easy to dismiss as chronicling a bleak dystopia. Instead, it provides a telling counterpoint to the glib and glossy war reports of the nightly TV news.
There is nothing uplifting here, just an honest complaint at a great nation being sold down the river so cheaply. Even the title is ambiguous. Should England shake with embarrassment at questionable foreign policy? Should it shake with fear of retribution?
This album definitely rewards undivided attention but I would recommend just playing it as a background and letting it seep into your sub-conscious. This is no singalong dynamic, just a thoughtful reflection on the pointlessness of carnage. There are no obvious hooks and no killer track, there is no flippancy or fillers, the melodies are a constant surprise and PJ’s voice veers from a reedy warble to a heavenly soar.
But, like all good art, “Let England Shake” presents more questions than answers.
Let England Shake, PJ Harvey, Island Records