Armed with an Autoharp, PJ Harvey has made a poignant declaration about the nature of war. Let England Shake, Harvey’s first solo album since 2007’s White Chalk, is a brutal, often difficult and always unflinching look at what terrible things happen to people when nations fight each other.
Harvey hangs her pocket horror stories on fragile, but drivingly determined music, creating a loose and energetic feel and allowing her trademark voice to shift between subtle murmur and banshee-like wail at any turn. Recorded mostly live in a church in Dorset, with the help of John Parish and Mick Harvey, the music here is far less claustrophobic or meticulously plotted as what came before it on White Chalk.
“Goddamn Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England,” Harvey sings on The Last Living Rose over a spare electric guitar and pounding drums. “And damp grey filthiness of ages and battered books and fog rolling down behind the mountains on the graveyards and dead sea captains.” This is after the slightly off, caterwauling xylophone-driven fever dream of the album opener. There’s a sense of desolate sadness in the face of the destruction caused by war, but also an intensely rooted sense of place.
The Glorious Land sounds almost like a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll song with its rolling, chorus-thick guitars if it weren’t for the trumpet sounding out of time with the rest of the song, signalling a weird, off-kilter march into battle. “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” Harvey asks. “The fruit is orphaned children.”
“What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” she asks, mirroring Eddie Cochran‘s Summertime Blues, on The Words That Maketh Murder, a song populated with soldiers who “fell like lumps of meat,” and who were “blown and shot out beyond belief”.
“When you rolled a smoke or told a joke, it was in the laughter and drinking water,” she sings of death at Bolton’s Ridge in All And Everyone. Harvey sings of “summers paused before us” and “our young men hit with guns in the forests and in the dark places.” Written On The Forehead pulls off a weird trick, sampling Niney The Observer‘s Blood And Fire, mixing reggae and a big, echo-heavy malaise, creating a somehow riotously joyful and dejectedly hopeless juxtaposition.
And while the album is rife with dark and horrific imagery of blood on the battlefield, referencing such dense and terrible moments in English history as the 1915 Gallipoli invasion and other moments from the First World War, it is not without its moments of beauty. Hanging On A Wire ranks perhaps among the most sublimely haunting songs in Harvey’s catalogue; it’s intensely melodic and understated, framed over a reverb-heavy piano, but its narrative focuses a place with “no birds singing” and “no trees to sing from” and “the guns beginning”.
Let England Shake is no doubt a difficult album. Even in its most serene moments (which are quite few, like spare glints of gold dust in a polluted creek bed) it tells a story that’s too often brushed under the rug, kept out of sight and out of mind. On the album closer, The Colour Of The Earth, Harvey and her choir of band mates sing of a soldier fallen on the “dull and browny red” battlefield: “Nothing but a pile of bones, but I think of him still.” Loose and sparse as it is, Let England Shake serves much the same function, lingering in the mind long after its engrossing runtime.