James McNair reviews PJ Harvey's new album Let England Shake.
PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
Back in April 2010, PJ Harvey aired the title track of her eighth studio album on BBC television. Guesting on the political journalist Andrew Marr's chat show, she strummed autoharp and sketched an England "weighted down with silent dead" as Marr and the outgoing prime minister, Gordon Brown, looked on.
Let England Shake, the album, finds Harvey reflecting on England's role in military conflicts from the First World War to Iraq and Afghanistan, and on current affairs in general. The heft of her subject matter has gripped UK commentators. Indeed, Harvey and the album she made in a 19th-century church on the Dorset coast are a ubiquitous topic of discussion there.
Musically speaking, the singer-songwriter has always shape-shifted. Indeed, her back catalogue takes in everything from 1992's disturbingly feral Dry to 2000's much more mainstream and radio-friendly Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. Harvey's lyrics to date have tended to focus on personal matters, however, so the historically contextualised, pulse-of-the-nation-taking grapple with politics that is Let England Shake is particularly fresh terrain for her.
Galvanised by an upsurge in her own political passions, and by a certain frustration and fascination with the selective language of war reportage, the singer has certainly done her homework. Blogs and smartphone footage posted by folk on the ground in Iraq; accounts of the 1915-1916 bloodbath that was Gallipoli; the war paintings of Goya and Dalí; Harold Pinter's poetry and journalism - these and countless other artefacts inform Harvey's writing here.
Throughout the record, multi-instrumentalists John Parish and Mick Harvey bring judiciously spare textures to PJ's desiccated, discomfiting songs. The Words that Maketh Murder, narrated by a soldier who has seen and done things he wants to forget, finds Harvey singing in haunted tones at the top end of her range, while Battleship Hill, one of several songs here about the Gallipoli campaign, rides a spectral groove part-comprised of zither. In The Glorious Land, meanwhile, England's post-imperial delusions are brilliantly symbolised by a military horn motif wandering where it may not rightly belong. The effect is deliberately jarring.
Harvey's ambivalent feelings about the nation of her birth are perhaps clearest on the starkly titled England. Again, it's an unsettling listen, the singer's desolate, almost grief-stricken vocals confessing an unfailing love for her country, but telling of "A withered vine / a bitter one / reaching from the nation's dirt". Such are the lyrics that have led some to view Let England Shake as a strangely prophetic record, with England - and indeed Britain - currently ailing in a way that it wasn't, quite, when Harvey began writing the album.
Disturbing it may be, but Harvey's latest is also highly satisfying. The singer has said that composing the record involved her fantasising that she'd been appointed "official war song correspondent", and, fascinatingly, it now appears that wish may come true. Roger Tolson, the head of collections at London's Imperial War Museum, has expressed an interest in working with Harvey, and she will reportedly have the chance to join British troops in conflict zones. If Harvey does so, more great music will surely percolate. Watch this space.