To be perfectly honest from the off, the three words that are almost guaranteed to send a shiver down our spine are ‘anti’ ‘war’ ‘album’. Thoughts immediately turn to rock stars trying too hard to convey their liberal, empathetic tendencies by making heavy-handed, ego-centric music that, more often than not, patronises its subject matter and bores the listener silly.
So it wasn’t without trepidation that we first listened to Let England Shake – PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album. From the opening chimes of the title track, and first song, though, its clear that this isn’t your average anti-war album. Let England Shake is equal parts beguiling, haunting, brutal and beautiful and, rather than the careerist ‘socially conscious’ box-ticker we feared, actually sounds like the album Harvey was born to make.
Throughout her career Harvey has specialised in viscerally bearing her own emotional troubles and personal turmoils in her songs. But for Let England Shake she turns her brutally frank analytical focus onto the devastating human effects of war – and the results are, in a word, stunning. ‘The Glorious Land’, for instance, combines cavalry horns with shimmering guitars to create a beautifully melodic frame for brutal war zone imagery – featuring a land ‘ploughed by tanks’ and full of ‘orphaned children’. If there’s a more affecting and beautiful protest song this side of Dylan, then we haven’t heard it.
‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ follows in the same vein, conjuring up images of soldiers falling ‘like lumps of meat’ over rhythmic percussion and diverting horns, with Harvey’s vocals shifting from playful and dissociated to full-on Karen O-style attitude.
Much has been made about the research Harvey undertook to make sure Let England Shake is as honest and frank account of war as possible – spending two years studiously researching the subject and interviewing survivors. But the biggest achievement here is the manner in which the competing voices and emotions are wrapped into a cohesive musical whole, using a variety of different musical influences to keep the listener on edge throughout. ‘All And Everyone’, for example, begins with maudlin guitars and dark and heavy lyrics about the Gallipoli campaign of WWI (“Death was everywhere / In the air and in the sounds / coming off the mounds / Of Bolton’s Ridge”) before melting away into a staggeringly beautiful and haunting hymn. ‘On Battleship Hill’ keeps the surprises coming, with jangling guitars swapping places with bleak and ephemeral vocals.
In terms of pure pop thrills, ‘Bitter Branches’ takes the prize as the albums most instantly accessible song – with its satisfying pounding rhythm and driving guitars leading Harvey’s vocals through the tangled web of conflicting emotions of young soldiers going to war.
In Let England Shake PJ Harvey turns her visceral and brutally honest song-writing style away from herself and onto the big questions facing humanity in general. Wisely, she avoids framing the album around a specific war – allowing her to explore different perspectives through a host of alternate characters and voices. In doing so, she has created an album that deserves to be regarded as one of THE classic war albums.