Jean Encoule

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island)

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Opening with the album’s titular movement, Let England Shake starts as it means to go on … pregnant with allegory, defiant in cause, “Weighted down by silent dead”

Discordant elements mingle willingly to fashion a sound that is as old as it is inherently new: the waves Britannia once ruled are ebbing, Polly rides a new wave, a career-defining epoch that promises everything, and denies nothing … Afghanistan, Gallipoli, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia … Iran? ‘The Last Living Rose’ matches the evocative cinematography of its attendant video with aplomb, a marvellous ditty, replete with wonky sax break, that opens thus: “Goddam Europeans!/Take me back to England/& the grey damp filthiness of ages/fog rolling down behind the mountains/& on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains”.

‘The Glorious Land’ features a wobbly, sampled hunting horn, that hints at the ineffectuality of the Hunting Ban, taunting the classes that flaunt it, with its accusations of the kind of orphan-creation theorism that only a faith-based perspective sadly lacking in faith in human nature, obsessed by profit, ignorant of prophets, can actually espouse. The stunning first single from the LP, ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, culminates with the ironic subversion of Eddie Cochran’s 1958 number, ‘Summertime Blues’: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations”, to haunting effect.

‘On Battleship Hill’ opens on a typically PJ-esque riff, briefly descending into operatic flurry, before evolving into more traditional fayre, as Parish and Harvey’s male voices vie for microphone space, and a lush quagmire of intricate piano-led melody dresses proceedings in gossamer finery: “Cruel nature has won again,” cries Polly, succumbing to the futile inevitability of it all. ‘England’ begins with shards of Arabic melody, shrapnel of middle-eastern instrumentation on a acoustic guitar bed, summoning images of a fatally wounded Tommy, bleeding his heart out over the desert sands, assured that he will never see his beloved Blighty again.

The aforementioned ‘In The Dark Places’ has become one of my favourite ever PJ Harvey songs, these past few days learning to live with Let England Shake, like a widow learns to live with the losses of war … its majestic riffage, its darkened hue, the blackened, tanned images of the horrific acts men commit under the guise of “I was only following orders”. Mist-shrouded forests, shallow graves, the secrets soldiers subsequently carry to their own eventual graves, through their future civilian lives of post-traumatic stress disorder, redundancy and guilt. ‘Bitter Branches’, too, looks backwards, in terms of sonic form … reverse echo, forward reverberation … a subtle rebirth, a grand reinvention: “Wave goodbye, wave goodbye!”

The album’s climax comes in the form of ‘Written On The Forehead’, the track that initially turned my head to the promise of Let England Shake, just two short months ago. Ingeniously utilising a sample from Niney The Observer’s ‘Blood & Fire’, the song is possibly the bravest statement Polly Jean Harvey has ever made, both musically, and subjectively: “A sad circus beside a trench of burning oil” not only serves as a fitting epitaph for the Iraq war, but acts as a prophetic presage to the forthcoming war with Iran … coming to a petrol station forecourt near you …  any day now, any day now, it will be realised.

Long time confident, and now sadly departed friend, Captain Beefheart, would surely have approved of this one, as should you … as should every peace-loving humanist on this God-forsaken planet. Blast it from the minarets, rock it from the casbah, drown out the strains of ‘Jerusalem’ … no countenance divine shines forth from these clouded hills.

Words: Jean Encoule, February 2011

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