Albums of the Year (#4): PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

War poet may be the trickiest role of PJ Harvey's career

Feature by Sam Wiseman | 02 Dec 2011
  • PJ Harvey

With hindsight, PJ Harvey’s 2000 LP Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea signalled more than just a commercial breakthrough in her career. Following the September 11 attacks – which prevented Harvey from flying to the UK to collect her first Mercury Music Prize for the record – its lyrical evocations of New York took on a new and unexpected emotive power: the album sounded an elegy for a certain kind of romantic conception of the city, and also acquired a subtle, seemingly inadvertent political character.

The development of a lyrical approach exploring themes of place, history and politics continued with 2007’s White Chalk, a record which eschewed the metropolitan concerns of Stories for a resolute focus on Harvey’s home region of west Dorset. The spectral beauty of that record evinced a determination to evoke the character of the place through understated instrumentation and a narrow lyrical focus. Ultimately, this laid the groundwork for the more lyrically and musically ambitious Let England Shake, a record which expands its predecessor’s vision to cover differing conceptions of England – with particular emphasis on the nation’s history of military conflict.

Consequently, the album is Harvey’s most explicitly political work, evoking battles and wars ranging from Gallipoli (Battleship Hill) to Afghanistan (The Glorious Land); the overall effect simultaneously highlights the history of violence that underpins English culture, and uses a disarmingly dreamlike musical approach to present alternative narratives to those of triumphant militarism. The record never shies away from the brutality and futility of war – soldiers “fall like lumps of meat” (The Words That Maketh Murder), and are sent to the “fountain of death” (Let England Shake) – but it tempers such imagery with a tender focus on a “beautiful England”, with “fog rolling down behind the mountains” (The Last Living Rose).

That tenderness is complemented by gentle texturing, led by understated guitar and autoharp; the album’s instrumental complexity (compared with a record like White Chalk) being further emphasised through the use of samples on The Glorious Land and Written on the Forehead. Live, in a show at the Glasgow Concert Hall in September, that subtly cumulative sound was replaced by a stripped-down, hard-edged approach, which forcefully brought out the passion and anger of the songs. Again, Let England Shake’s dual character – both paean to, and critique of, English identity and history – was stressed.

This seems reflected in Harvey’s ambivalent relationship with the establishment; a point emphasised by the announcement in February of an offer from the Imperial War Museum to become the institution’s “official war song correspondent”. When Let England Shake won the Mercury Music Prize in September, ten years after Stories – and just days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11 – the timeliness of Harvey’s decision to explore the album’s themes was underlined. War poet may be the trickiest role to negotiate that she has yet taken on, but as Let England Shake demonstrates (and as its subsequent reception has confirmed), this restlessly inventive artist has explored its possibilities with characteristic focus, imagination and intelligence.

A series of short films created by Seamus Murphy to accompany each track on Let England Shake will be released on DVD via Island Records on 12 Dec.