PJ Harvey is part of the soundtrack of my life. Years ago, songs like “Victory” sung to my very soul, and I swore that she must have written “Rid of Me” (1993) just for me to ponder over! When I finally got a hold of “Let England Shake” (14 February 2011 in the UK, 15 February 2011 in the USA), I had to listen to it quite a few times before I even thought of writing. I put nothing pass PJ Harvey, there is nothing she is not capable of writing or composing, and she proves that again. The most disarming thing about this album is that it is not introspective in the way Harvey has become famous for. This album is a mediation on England itself; in the very opening track, the titular “Let England Shake,” she sings, “England’s dancing days are done, another day, Bobby, for you to come home, home and tell me indifference is won, won, won…” And the journey through resonating soundscapes and national mediation begins.
In a world where most music is about love, the loss of love, the need for love, and always about the desire for love, Harvey’s “Let England Shake” stands out. And when most bands make national or political statements, it is done through cutting remarks and criticisms, but rarely with subtle mediation. “Let England Shake” steers clear from being preachy or even political in a partisan way, but rather allows the narratives of each song create its own world for listeners. Each song on the album is sung through a distinct persona; from small vignettes to powerful monologues, each song is a reflection on English consciousness, conscience, and history. And among the historical references is the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign, a failed campaigned that ended in a staggering number of causalities. And the indifference that has won, alluded to right in the opening, is that in order to move on as a nation, we have to unfortunately forget, to some degree, the atrocities that have been initiated by and/or enacted against the nation.
Bringing the shadow of America into the mix, in “The Glorious Land,” an allusion to the World Wars, Harvey states, “What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is orphaned children.” Even in the act of defense, of aggression for self-preservation, in England’s case, or to assist allies/friends, in America’s, there is always a cost to war, and one that goes unmentioned quite to often is the affects of those left behind: the children of fallen soldiers. But the album is not always so poetically blunt, it can get extremely more graphic: “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat” (“The Words That Maketh Murder”), or if you prefer, “Louis was my dearest friend fighting in the Anzac trench. Louis ran forward from the line and I never saw him again…. He is till up on that hill, twenty years on that hill, nothing more than a pile of bones” (“The Colour of the Earth”).
Many non-Europeans fail to understand the significance of England (the entire United Kingdom) being an island nation, apart from the rest of Europe: English identity is free from that of the continent. “Goddamn Europeans,” Harvey sings in “The Last Living Rose,” “Take me back to England and the grey, damp filthiness of ages and battered books…” And even in all that can be complaint about ole England, Harvey ultimately always longs for her home; the national pride shines through. “I live and die through England,” she sings in “England.” And that is the reality we all live in: the inescapability of living life through our national perspective, even if “it leaves a sadness.” At the end of it all, the “national” contributes such an integral part to all of us (whether in our acceptance, critique, or rejection of it), and Harvey even mediates this idea.
The music on the album, especially when Harvey employs the Autoharp, is more inviting than the lyrics. But it is what draws you right in; there is a sense of innocence and curiosity to the music that acts as the comforter to the harsh realities of the lyrics. But it is in that contrast that “Let England Shake” is saved from being an angry political, anti-war protest. Rather, we are left to consider the consequences of national actions on the individuals portrayed by Harvey’s personas and lyrics. And though the final words of the album leaves a morose image (“If I was asked I’d tell the colour of the earth that day, it was dull and browny-red, “the colour of blood,” I’d say” (The Colour of Earth”)), that is not what one takes from the album. In fact, one does not take away the imagery of war and death, loss and regret, but rather the need to always question “nation” on a very personal and individual level – something that not only brings individual growth, but also national rejuvenation.
1. Let England Shake
2. The Last Living Rose
3. The Glorious Land
4. The Words That Maketh Murder
5. All and Everyone
6. On Battleship Hill
8. In the Dark Places
9. Bitter Branches
10. Hanging in the Wire
11. Written on the Forehead
12. The Colour of the Earth
Keep up with PJ Harvey at her homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.
Here is the video for “Let England Shake” from the letenglandshake YouTube Channel.