PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
Alternative & IndiePop...
On February 14th
2011, some nineteen days after the protests kicked off in Tahrir Square, an album that couldn’t be
more befitting was released. PJ Harvey’s Let
England Shake could well be called ‘Let Egypt Shake’.
For twenty years,
Polly Jean Harvey’s musical career has sat comfortably in that vacuum above
consistent critical success and below major stardom. A suitable number of
fruitless nominations, including five Grammy disappointments, have spared her
from the revelry of topping charts. This is all irrelevant to the foremost
woman of rock, though. The unsubtle but smooth leaps between musical styles have
made her one of the most versatile and longstanding British artists of her
generation, and indeed subsequent generations. This latest leap, the first for
four years, is a much more intellectual one than the usual stylistic one.
studied the history and present of British wars like a method actor, she has
deconstructed the idea of war to its most simple elements; conflict, death and pride;
not unlike the protests of Tahrir. There’s nothing subtle about the album’s
lyrics, either. They read like poetry, which often turns into campfire chants
fuelled by the civility of humanity that is caught in the tangle of politics,
never losing the intellectuality in which each context was formed. Not unlike
the protesters of Tahrir.
What makes this
record defiantly unique is that its stories aren’t told from a privileged
perspective, but from the front-line infantry and from the trenches. For
example, she sings not to or of politicians, but of Louis in ‘The Colour of the
Earth’: ‘Louis was my dearest friend/Fighting in the ANZAC trench/Louis ran
forward from the line/I never saw him again.’
Or to Bobby in
the title track, ‘England’s
dancing days are done/ Another day, Bobby, for you to come home/ And tell me
indifference won.’ These words are all served on an earthy but
sophisticated acoustic platter that is a sombrely perfect fit, which borders on
rock and folk with just a little bit of PJ Harvey experimental flair.
Having turned 41
last October, it is obvious that she has gained a very literal political voice,
nothing short of a Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. The problem with her predecessors is
that they quite often verged on the cusp of preaching, a problem that even she
has not escaped. It’s one thing for a song to carry a political message, and
another to be a war song to the bone. Such issues are hard enough to verbalise;
let alone put to verse in the 21st century.
The message isn’t
necessarily anti-anything as it is pro-life. Harvey hasn’t concerned herself with the reasons
of war; but with the always humbling consequences of it. So although there are
moments that hover closely to pretension, Let
England Shake delivers its message, its music and its poetry poignantly and
triumphantly. Not unlike the protesters of Tahrir.