Review Summary: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori
The words ‘protest album’ or ‘protest song’ can provoke a sense of sarcastic recognition in a lot of people. The more measured musical responses to world events, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio”, can be overruled by the embarrassing pomp of Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” or even Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”. So it’s understandable that some may err on the side of caution when approaching PJ Harvey’s latest effort. All reservations should be case aside though, as Let England Shake
is a soulful, maudlin and yet sometimes quite playful album. Far removed from her previous effort White Chalk
, this time instead of taking ex-lovers and the like to task she has trained a thoughtful yet acerbic eye towards the mistakes and the implications, both personal and wider reaching, of past conflicts from attacks on Gallipoli and World War One to the present day debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Harvey’s view of England and the Western world is one of weary cynicism: “The West’s asleep/Let England shake/Weighted down with silent dead” is the album’s opening salvo, delivered in a sickly sweet and mocking tone. She reminds us of how “England’s dancing days are done”, twisting that post-colonial knife even further. It’s a mistake to think that the album is mired in negativity. Harvey still harks back to England’s stained but present glory. The album’s second track “The Last Living Rose” finds an ambience in “stinking alleys”, “dead filthiness of ages” and “drunken beatings” beside “the Thames River glistening like gold.” With the lyrics evoking such hazy, dream-like imagery, it’s only fitting that the sounds behind it are ghostly and ethereal. The disjointed bugle on “The Glorious Land” and a pitch-perfect siren’s call throughout “On Battleship Hill” are altogether bleak, uplifting and sound almost supernatural. The bugle interrupts proceedings as if it is the rallying call of an impromptu last stand. The album’s highlight is undoubtedly “The Words That Maketh Murder”, a piece that recalls the visceral platitudes of Owen and Sassoon delivered in an almost uplifting fashion. She evokes the role of a haunted soldier, a life sullied by acts committed during war. “I have seen and done things I want to forget” she insists.
The difficult subject matter and the stark lyrics are countered by instrumentation that is, at times, at a polar opposite to what is being discussed. An eclectic mix of bass harmonicas, zithers, mellotrons and xylophones add a sprig of flavour to the usual guitar and percussion arrangements and whilst the beauty of the LP is heavily entrenched in the lyrics, mention should be made of the two exemplary uses of samples on the album. First, the catchy, memorable and fitting refrain of “What if I take my problem to the United Nations"” originally penned by Eddie Cochran and later used by Blue Cheer. Its dazzling rhetoric not only captures the mood of the LP, but appears to be a fitting bookmark for everything discussed within. Second, a welcome, and again fitting, use of Niney the Observer’s “Blood & Fire” permeates “Written On The Forehead”, a sad tale of a war-ruined city being poisoned even further by “a fetid river.”
Throughout the album, Harvey remains keen to stick to the role as an observer. There is a subtle brilliance involved in not nailing your colours to the mast of an over the top political protest. Preferring to eschew solutions to the problems that highlighted, she is keen merely to bring to people’s attention the repetitive and relentless horror of conflicts past, present and future. Discussions and ruminations on the nature of national identity, war and its consequences tread a fine line between insightful and insanity. The skill and experience of PJ Harvey has put her firmly within the borders of the former. Harvey’s depiction of war as an endless parade of nightmares is an effective one. Instead of throwing clumsy political allegories at a beleaguered public, Harvey has kept it simple. This is war poetry at its finest and will keep you coming back for many repeat listens. Its influence on any listener, impressionable or otherwise, should be a positive one.