25 Masterworks: PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
My Spin on Masterworks: 21 of 25
Let England Shake
It would be a severe disservice to Polly Jean Harvey and her illustrious career to disregard her greater body of work in the pursuit of whittling her albums down to just a single definitive masterpiece. Moreover, to argue that her legacy would be of lesser worth had Let England Shake never been released would be outright insulting. Harvey’s iconic and enduring status was confirmed decades prior to the making of her eighth album, and she has cast a long shadow over the musical culture of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. She has been recognised – and deservedly so – with plenty of awards and plaudits in her time, but these gongs (such as the twice-won Mercury Music Prize) are ultimately unnecessary endorsements considering the breadth of her work and her continuous influence on modern artists. In a way, they’re merely signposts to that which is now obvious: PJ Harvey is in a league of her own.
Essays can be (and have been) written that would justify the status of any one of her albums as a modern classic. Looking closer still, to pore over her numerous collaborations, her restless trendsetting in sound and style, and her sharp-eyed take on matters of contemporary and historical significance, it’s clear that valorising one of her achievements over another can seem a little moot. So, in her versatile discography of distinctive treasures – Dry, Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, White Chalk – why single out Let England Shake? In part, it’s because of all the records in the singer’s catalogue, Let England Shake stands apart most noticeably in the unflagging intensity of its vision, as well as packing the most convincing case for immortality beyond Harvey’s die-hard fans. It’s on this record that Harvey handles huge themes with calm and dexterity, writing music which is seismic in scope but not overwhelming in execution. Unlike some of her earlier offerings, Let England Shake does not strive to be mind-blowing or breathtaking, at least not in a scene-stealing sense. Instead, it is a deliberate and persuasively powerful work, which continues to demand attention after dozens of repeat listens.
Following touring duties for 2007’s White Chalk, Harvey immersed herself in examining the national character of her home country, digging especially deep into England’s military history, the evolution (and lack thereof) of its physical landscapes, and the way the country’s legacy has shifted (and soured) through time. An interview with Bridport News reveals her creative process more thoroughly, but the proof can be heard on even a cursory listen to the album itself: Let England Shake is rich in content, Harvey lacing her research into a cohesive work that isn’t the gruelling chore it would be in shakier hands. It’s one of her greatest abilities: to make records of this sensitivity and intellect look (and sound) simple.
Understandably in the wake of her studies, Harvey’s lyrics proved the starting point for Let England Shake, and the most prominent focus of the record is the Great War, the spectre of which hangs heavily over these twelve songs. Harvey’s perspective shifts back and forth between that of soldiers (“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget”) and a detached commentator amid scenes of unfathomable devastation. However, Harvey demonstrates a clear understanding that the horrors of war require little embellishment beyond the facts, and even when she references moments of truly horrifying violence, her delivery is graceful rather than heavy-handed. The album’s starkest song, ‘All and Everyone’, casts an eye over the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, and the event’s emotional gravity is kept in taut balance: “Death was everywhere / in the air and in the sounds / coming off the mounds / of Bolton’s ridge / oh, Death’s anchorage”. The haunting power of the song is summoned through these terse phrases and Harvey’s own singing voice, which is largely kept to her cut-glass higher register, giving an eerie beauty to her dispatches.
As for its sound, at first Let England Shake can feel a little unusual on the ears, if only because one would expect an album of its nature to sound more discomfiting. In truth, there’s very little drama to the music: no conventional crescendos or centrepieces here, just the occasional spike in tempo (‘Bitter Branches’), or stomping group chants (‘The Words That Maketh Murder’) to punctuate the watery, hazy aesthetic pursued by Harvey’s team. This tight ensemble included Harvey’s longstanding collaborator John Parish, as well as Mick Harvey and producer Flood, and their shared experience gives the album a tangible confidence that never tips into indulgence. Among the central mix of Harvey’s much-loved autoharp, commanding percussion and occasional groans of saxophone, guitars are mixed in murky shades, oftentimes sounding as though they are played underwater, or veiled behind thick curtains of fog. The uniform sound that emerges insistently creeps under the skin: it’s off-kilter but not otherworldly, sounding drawn from the past while never wholly familiar.
Those keen to pin down Harvey’s words to particular moments can find concrete references with additional searching, but generally, these songs are blurry around the finer details; never giving the listener a single linear path to follow. “The West’s asleep,” Harvey announces over the increasingly sinister prance of the title track; “let England shake.” It’s a terrific opening gambit that has life beyond one ascribed meaning, and it’s one of many phrases lodged throughout Let England Shake that can be picked out at will, and moulded to fit a particular notion. Harvey’s bold and penetrating look at her country’s history is rendered in broad strokes, many of which ring with additional potency in the wake of events following the album’s release. Her snarl of “goddamn Europeans / take me back to beautiful England” harks back to the trenches of the Western Front, but it also now queasily summons thoughts of Brexit and the troubling nationalism of modern Britain. With each new listen, Let England Shake reveals new layers of complexity, throwing up strikingly vivid imagery one moment before smudging away any specifics the next.
And when her language is kept clear and direct, the results are striking. Landscapes are represented in their contrasting beauty and brutality: in surveying the cliffs and coasts of Dorset, Harvey takes note of “jagged mountains, jutting out / cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth”, while during ‘The Last Living Rose’ her narrator pines for the “stinking alleys” and “grey, damp filthiness” of home. The stunning ‘Hanging in the Wire’ conjures its scenery not just through words but in its music; its delicate piano flutters hinting at faint glimmers of sunlight through iron-grey clouds. Mostly, Harvey evokes distinctly English pastoral landscapes, to the effect of giving these songs a timelessness that comes uncomfortably close to skirting romance. Harvey herself addresses this tense mingling of love and hate on the song ‘England’, claiming her country “leaves a taste / a bitter one”, though she ultimately professes “undaunted, never-failing love” for her homeland, in spite of the damage it has seen and wrought.
With Anglophilia still rife among musicians on an international scale, and considering the country’s social divisions that are more apparent than ever in the wake of Brexit, what is it that makes an “English record”? More than any of her peers, Harvey has produced perhaps the best outline of England’s character over the past century. Across the many layers of Let England Shake, we are given a study of the country’s battle scars and proud heritage, its awful losses and appallingly cruel machinations at home and overseas, and the gloom, beauty, and brutality of the land itself. This canvas may be broad, but this means it is open to be studied from many angles: a state-of-the-nation address, a tribute to those directly involved in England’s military operations, a love letter to the landscapes forged across millennia and frequently defined by the blood spilled on – and for – its soil.
There are rewards to be found whatever the lens one chooses to apply. And most hauntingly, it’s an album which poses to its listener perturbing questions of humanity. When looking closely into the horrors and cruelty reported on Let England Shake, Harvey returns the gaze of her audience in piercing kind, and – as has been the case for twenty-five years and counting – she refuses to blink first.
Posted on November 19, 2016, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged 25 Masterworks, Island Records, Let England Shake, Mercury Prize, Mick Harvey, PJ Harvey, Seamus Murphy, The Colour of the Earth, The Hope Six Demolition Project, The Words That Maketh Murder, War. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.