In Let England Shake, Polly Jean Harvey turns from the inward turmoils that have driven much of her music, and focuses her attention on her home country. She’s not happy with what she sees, a place of “stinking alleys” and “drunken beatings,” with the threat of death hanging over everything. Yes, another cheerful PJ Harvey album!
Much of the album focuses on the impact of war, particularly on young men fighting and dying in foreign places, not just now but in the past. “Hanging in the Wire” sees a World War One soldier hanging in barbed wire in no man’s land. “Bitter Branches” are actually the arms of wives waving goodbye to their soldier husbands (the bitter branches of the title spreading through the world). Iraq comes up in “Written on the Forehead.” And “The Colour of the Earth” is blood red in the closing track of a soldier remember a dead comrade in the Gallipoli trenches.
The song titles (e.g., “The Last Living Rose,” “On Battleship Hill,” “The Words That Maketh Murder”) could be the contents of a book of old poetry, an impression that grows in listening to the lyrics. “The Last Living Rose” reads like a modern version of a William Blake poem (he of the “dark Satanic Mills”). Or consider this excerpt from the title song:
until the day is ending,
& the birds are silent in the branches,
& the insects are courting in the bushes,
& by the shores of lovely lakes
heavy stones are falling.
This isn’t surprising given that Harvey wrote the lyrics first, and then created the music. This points to one of the few flaws in this album: occasionally the music takes a back seat to the lyrics, the aforementioned “The Last Living Rose” being a good example. Great lyrics; so-so song. One has to serve the other.
Other than these occasional slips, this is a powerful work, right from the opening track that, over a slightly discordant combination of guitar, keyboard and marimba, warns of what’s to come. Background voices and sounds sometimes offer jarring counterpoints as in “England.” Arrangements tend to be simple with rapidly strummed acoustic or lightly reverbed or distorted electric guitars, handclaps and brushed snare drums. “On Battleship Hill” is a delicate English folk song. A baritone sax accompanies a growing chorus on “In the Dark Places,” bringing this sad song to a ringing conclusion.
“The Words that Maketh Murder” ends with an echo of “Summertime Blues,” written by Eddie Cochran but made famous by that most English of rock bands, The Who. Harvey asks “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” a sadly resigned response to the more positive “I’m gonna take…” in the original.
My initial impression is already strong, but this is music I expect to grow on me over time. I definitely recommend it.