Review Summary: Gordon Brown just doesn't get it.
The best thing about PJ Harvey's performance on The Andrew Marr Show
last April was the bemused look on Gordon Brown's face. It wasn't just that the former Prime Minister's bewildered expression was funny (although it most definitely was). There was something distinctly unsettling and daring about Harvey performing the title song off of her newest album, Let England Shake
, in front of a man who had been accused of ill-equipping English military forces in Iraq. Although Harvey's strange black headdress and typically idiosyncratic performance certainly did invite confused reactions, her words could not be more straightforward: "England's dancing days are done / another day, Bobby, for you to come home / and tell me indifference won."
Let England Shake
is, as its title suggests, PJ Harvey's "English album". But it's also her "protest album" - her "war album", if you will. Not that Polly Jean Harvey is waxing rhapsodic about the current state of affairs; rather, through her explicit references to the landing at Anzac Cove, Harvey paints England (and the West in general) as a tired, war-ridden place. There's no blind nationalism to be found here. So while Let England Shake
at first seems impenetrable to those audiences not attuned to its sensibilities or subject matter, as is the case with most self-consciously English art, its ostensible esotericism is eventually overridden by its knack for gorgeous lyricism and the music itself, which sounds as fresh as ever. This shouldn't really come as a surprise, since Harvey is an artist extremely prone to reinvention; as she told Andrew Marr, "My biggest fear would be to replicate something I've done before."
Well, Harvey hasn't done anything like Let England Shake
before, and I'd venture that hardly anybody has. Because while war, protest, and patriotism are themes that have been revisited in pop music ad nauseam, there aren't many artists who would write a line like "I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat / blown and shot out beyond belief" and sing it with dead-eyed precision. Moments where Harvey sings exclusively about her homeland are marked by a sense of exasperation and an almost obligatory pride; the loose groove of "The Last Living Rose" begins with Harvey singing, "Goddamn Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England." Though her words suggest national pride, she sounds mildly disgusted with herself and her country. Continuing in this vein, the most scathing moments on the album concern Western arrogance; the viciously sarcastic call-and-response vocal of "The Glorious Land" culminates with, "What is the glorious fruit of our land" Its fruit is deformed children!" And when she isn't condemning smug superiority, she's addressing sheer ineptitude, asking, "What if I take my problem to the United Nations"" over and over again on first single "The Words That Maketh Murder".
Of course, Harvey knows the answer to that question, and she knows that we
know it too. What makes her rhetorical query so devastating isn't what she's asking, which is an obvious joke and a playful reference to Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues", but the cheerful and unassuming way that she's asking it. These shadings color in the album's blunter moments more fully. Considering that on paper, Let England Shake
should be either a simpleminded statement of dissent or jingoism, the subtleties of tone played with here are welcome. Whether it's through subtly employing brass to reinforce the downtrodden nature of "All and Everyone" or sampling a limp reveille call in the aforementioned "The Glorious Land", Harvey always takes savage delight in skewering the tropes of the various genres that she dabbles in. That this record is Harvey's loosest and most approachable in nearly a decade almost seems like a coincidence. The music is as meticulously arranged and produced as ever - it just happens to be filled with memorable tunes.
Tying those tunes together is Harvey's inimitable voice, distinctive and chameleonic all at once. It takes the form of off-key mewling in "England", expressive crooning in "All and Everyone", and stoic chanting in "The Words That Maketh Murder". Her haunting wail on "Written on the Forehead" lends an ethereal quality to the song's surreally frightening imagery. "People throwing dinars at the belly-dancers / in a sad circus by a trench of burning oil / people throw belongings and lifetime's earnings / amongst the scattered rubbish and suitcases on the sidewalk," Harvey sings, sounding utterly blissful. This intentional mismatch is disorienting, as is the sampling of Niney the Observer's "Blood and Fire", yet another example of Harvey's subversion of expectations. The guitar lines are nothing short of dreamy, and the returning refrain of "let it burn, let it burn, let it burn, burn, burn" is positively brimming with joy. As Harvey sings of people trying to escape a rioting city and doves drowning in sewage, we're left wondering if "Written on the Forehead" is an elegy or a cathartic release.
Perhaps it's neither. Harvey has, after all, avoided the notion that Let England Shake
has a particular political motive. She seems more interested in exploring the feelings that arise in times of conflict and finding the intimacy in war's brute force and broad strokes. Harvey effectively pares an enormous military option down to a painfully personal narrative on the elegant "On Battleship Hill", singing, "The scent of Thyme carried on the wind / stings my face into remembering / cruel nature has won again." By looking at war through her humanistic lens, she connects with her audience on a deeply emotional level. And so Let England Shake
is a thrilling and stirring call to wake up from apathy. Where Harvey goes next is anybody's guess, but for now, as always, she seems right at home.