It might seem a little late to talk about the Great War, especially among Americans (our WWI was scant when compared to overseas). But in a lot of ways, its turn-of-the-century trenches made for a grisly intro into what has now been a hundred years of rash militarism and gritting aftermaths.
Upon return, the “lost generation” gave its due redress: a canon of wartime poets and post-war novelists. Other media like journalism, photojournalism and television have depicted more current wars in all of their hellishness. But for all of the public clamor of late—about wars we wish we weren’t in and their treads upon a world much too tread upon—music hasn’t reverberated the same dread, or even treated these subjects much.
PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake,” then, is a seemly lament. Its 12 songs, which all have a folky sound that rickets and shambles in the most moving ways, also carry a graphic lyricism that entwines the loathes of infantry with bleak agrarian ones. For instance: “How is our glorious county ploughed? Not by iron ploughs: our land is ploughed by tanks and feet marching…And what is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children.” Throughout, the record details an unearthed, if earthy, landscape—specifically England (she’s British), though its images hold for other places.
Other times, her words just gush with war-torn horrors. “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget: soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief, arms and legs were in the trees.” Or: “Death was everywhere, in the air and in the sounds…When you rolled a smoke or told a joke, it was in the laughter and drinking water…Death hung in the smoke and clung to 400 acres of useless beachfront: a bank of red earth, dripping down death now, and now, and now…” Even if she’s using history’s dressed wounds, she’s written as if there were still fresh blood between her fingers. And while they don’t all contain this level of gore, her verses are vividly plaintive, yore-like, and rousing without exception.
But unless you’re one to dig through the liner notes first, this probably won’t be the most immediate thing about “Let England Shake.” In this record, like many of her others (she’s been making music since the late ‘80s, and I would recommend most of her back catalog), you might be jarred a bit by her sound, which is dissonant, raw and creaking.
It’s an aesthetic that has always worked well for the kind of themes she chooses. For instance, this isn’t the first time scattered “limbs” appear: in previous work, she uses her shrieking guitar and voice to take on sexuality’s twisted complex. And even if her sound isn’t as venomous as it was earlier in her career, it’s still shrill and off-kilter to fit her subject matter. “England,” for instance, has a primal farrago of voices that mangles and teems—whoever’s joined in on this track yowls like a band of mourners. And “The Glorious Land” samples a very familiar battle-time horn melody that, paired with dismal guitar chords in “clumsy” timing, sounds utterly malformed. Powerfully so.
Others—for instance, “On Battleship Hill” or “The Colour of the Earth”—have a yearning tone that’s almost Celtic or mythic or pub song. Even though I don’t know firsthand what time-worn emotion is behind these, I feel it pretty deeply.
And all of that’s without mentioning some of the melodies on tracks like “The Words That Maketh Murder” or “Written On the Forehead” or “The Last Living Rose,” which all have an unlikely catchiness—they’ll soon be burnt into your memory, and you’ll willingly take on their heaviness.
So where do things end up for PJ Harvey? While this isn’t an upfront protest record, the polemic does get placed once or twice. One of the record’s standout lines comes from “The Words That Maketh Murder”; in it, Harvey asks, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” It’s a boldly straightforward line that stares right into the diplomatic defects that have outlasted the Great War.
As I’ve been looking into the world I’ve come into, it’s looking more and more abysmal to me. PJ Harvey’s latest seems as dead-on as I can imagine, and for that I’d say it’s probably the most compelling record of the year thus far. For some, I’m sure it’ll be unpalatable. And, in a backhanded way, I agree with their take: like the world, “jutting out, cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth.”