My record of the year: PJ Harvey ‘Let England Shake’

‘ Let England Shake’ is the one album this year that, from the moment I heard it, I could not get it out of my head. It’s been said that it’s a record about war and national identity, but it’s much more complex and brilliant than that. This isn’t simply an anti-war album, there is no sloganeering here or any pacifist platitudes and the influences span centuries, as well as the length and breadth of the globe. There are descriptions of the horrors of conflict, but you aren’t told to find the violence abhorrent, just to take in the imagery. If the violence of the imagery is anti-war, then war itself is inherently anti-war.

 The stand-out influence is World War I and it’s hard not to escape the feeling that PJ Harvey chose this because it is a conflict, the effects of which, still rumble on in the Middle East, in Europe and throughout the world. For instance, the divide up of land in the Middle East and the subsequent meddling by Britain and the USA has caused countless conflicts in the last century. However, this album is about more than war and England; it’s about what it is to be English, about the repetition of history and it tells its stories using many different voices. PJ Harvey has spoken of the myriad of inspirations for the record, including First World War memoirs, blogs from Afghanistan, folk songs from Vietnam and Iraq, Jez Butterworth’s plays, Stanley Kubrick, the Pogues. Her stories and lyrics aren’t her own, but taken from sources such as accounts of soldiers who fought at Gallipoli and Goya’s war prints. Harvey knew that without having first-hand experience of war, she had to take others’ words, so as to give a verisimilitude to her songs.

Samples crop up throughout the record, as reminders of what Harvey is singing about. From the bugle that interrupts ‘This Glorious Land’ (First World War) to the Eddie Cochran quoting ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ (“what if I take my problems to the United Nations”) (the Cold War) reminders of past conflicts crop up throughout the album. There is a recording of a Kurdish folk song from a pre-independence Iraq which reoccurs throughout the record, perhaps as a reminder of England’s colonial past, which brings me onto the question: “Why ‘Let England Shake’?” Perhaps it’s due to the fact that almost all of the conflicts that make up this record’s sources and stories have their roots in the actions of England and the Empire. Harvey clearly loves England, but it’s a fractious love: “I live and die through England/It leaves sadness/It leaves a taste/A bitter one.” Despite its historical greatness, there is blood on English hands and on English soil because of the wars it has been engaged in and the actions it has taken.

Beyond all of the political genius of the album, the music is never subservient to the message. This is perhaps PJ Harvey’s best collection of songs. The sound is sparse and melodies are simple and beautiful. ‘Let England Shake’ has a timeless quality to it, yet at the same time I can think of no other record that compares to its sound. The high register of her voice is ethereal and other-worldly, a quality which is enhanced by the autoharp she uses almost throughout the album. Though the melodies are beautiful, the often fragile nature of the music and the use of the samples ensures that the force of the lyrics are not lost. PJ Harvey is a complete one-off and this is her masterpiece. It’s a glorious album.

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