Hi, campers! I apologise for my absence last week. I was throwing up. It wasn’t pretty. The less said about that, the better. On to the music!
When I first heard of Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, the things I knew about Polly Jean I could count on one hand. She was English; she had been a sort of punky riot grrl type figure back in the early ’90s, when I was way too little to be paying attention; she had once done a tour entitled “Lick My Legs.” She won the Mercury Prize for best English album on Sept 11, 2001, which she was unable to accept due to the disruption caused by the tragedy in New York; and won again in 2011, the only person ever to collect it twice. She collected it, by the way, looking like this:
That photo doesn’t do her hat justice. It looks sort of like she plucked a seagull and then wired up a crown out of its feathers and some bread ties. But I digress.
Let England Shake is Harvey’s latest brainchild, and its Mercury scoop, combined with the lure of a name breaking out of my childhood into “real life,” made it my next big listen. I first played it on a car stereo driving through rain on the way to the Lake District, which, as far as I can tell, is essentially the perfect setting for this moody, haunting love letter to England and a memorial for her dead.
The album is at once unabashedly political and unsettlingly vague. Many of the songs reference wars, but those wars blend into each other: lyrics about trench warfare mingle with lines about dinars and belly dancers. Interspersed with scenes of carnage – one song mentions arms and legs in the trees, “a colonel whose nerves were shot” – are gorgeous, melodic valentines to Harvey’s home: on “The Last Living Rose,” possibly my favorite track, she sings “Take me back to beautiful England, and the grave and filthy mess of ages and battered books and fog rolling down behind the mountains…”
Harvey conjures ghostly regiments of young men, long perished in places far away, and links them with a sadness far beyond their deaths in battle. “I fear our blood won’t rise again… England’s dancing days are done,” she laments on the title track. It’s not just these young soldiers who have gone; it’s the hope of future generations, and the idea that England, through her wars, has lost something irreplaceable.
I was struck, looking at the liner notes, to realize that most of the lyrics contain no rhymes. You don’t notice when you’re listening, but the songs are essentially prose poems set to music. The short films made by Seamus Murphy to accompany the album play on this, as they often feature ordinary people reciting the lyrics aloud before the songs begin. Take a look at “On Battleship Hill”:
Her voice is incredible, but it’s the trembling strings and solemn male vocals in the background that really sell the graveyard atmosphere. When I first saw this video, with its accompanying portraits of servicemen long gone and the faces of children, I wept. Other songs are equally evocative through clever instrumentation: the bugle reveille that opens “The Glorious Land,” for instance, or the wake singalong feel of the closing track, “The Colour Of The Earth,” a cry for a fallen friend. Autoharp, xylophone, angry electric guitar: all contribute to a soundscape that evokes dark hills at twilight, cold tea, the smell of English fields. The rows of gravestones in Normandy, the empty chair by the fire.
First, listen to the album. Then watch the short films on YouTube; they’re all there, on the “letenglandshake” channel. There’s a reason this album took Best of the Year in sixteen publications. You come out sobered; but you feel wiser, older, more grounded. It’s the most beautiful album about death I’ve ever heard.
Until next week, ladies! Keep listening. And if any of you have suggestions for titles for the column, send ’em in!