Let England Shake

Band: PJ Harvey
Album: Let England Shake
Best song: “This Glorious Land” is amazing and kind of scary.
Worst song: “Hanging in the Wire,” while still pretty good, is the weakest of the record.

A note: In a fit of real goal making, I had intended to write about Let England Shake soon after writing about the Kinks’ Arthur (or some other of the Kinks’ similarly Anglocentric records [which is probably all of them]). But, life intervened and I wanted to spotlight my favorite albums of 2011. So, here is the first. I already wrote about the other. Maybe I’ll get to Arthur soon. But probably not.

There’s a notion that the pro-gun lobby normally lobs involving having everyone armed. It would be “safer,” they say. It is, essentially, a small scale M.A.D. policy.

(M.A.D., for those who never took PS 1 in college, is “Mutally Assured Destruction,” wherein two nuclear powers would not bomb the other into the stone age, for fear that a bomb was coming its own way soon thereafter. Thanks, University of Missouri Political Science Department, for educating me 10 years ago.)

I find this patently foolish. For one, the concept of M.A.D. was only realized after the United States used the atomic bomb on Japan, demonstrating what sort of carnage could be wrought with the bomb. Second, the large scale actors of the Cold War (the United States and the Soviet Union), for the most part, acted rationally. Individual actors, however, do not act rationally. Which is to say that human beings act hastily, no matter how trained in combat.

To put it in a somewhat pithy context, almost everyone in a war is armed and that shit is not safe at all. Certainly not “safer” than when fewer people have guns.

All this is the backdrop to the sublime Let England Shake. Polly Jean Harvey, the person, sometimes get too self-serious and obtuse in her songwriting and her band can let her down. White Chalk, for example is hardly the record that To Bring You My Love and Uh Huh Her is mediocre, at best.

But, Let England Shake is a strikingly wonderful record. It’s focused, thematically and musically, while variously tragic and gruesome. Like the decade that preceded it and the history of the nation she chronicles, Let England Shake can be stiff and cold — and can be powerful and emotional — while hitting emotional subjects and telling the stories that built an empire.

It’s no surprise that I would fall in love with a concept album, albeit a somewhat loose one. I’m no history buff, nor am I a particular fan of political music. But, Let England Shake is able to overcome its political nature by painting sonic portraits (sorry. I know that sentence is tortured.). Harvey’s lyrics are, as English literature teachers like to say, there to show and not tell.

A midtempo dirge of “In the Dark Places” recounts the English marches across continents at the expense of young men and women (Sample lyric: “And some of us returned/and some of us did not.”) “Written on the Forehead” hits the U.S./U.K. entanglement in Mesopatamia subtly by reference local symbols and sounds. “The Last Living Rose” echoes the lovely self-hatred that so many have about their own homeland — especially in connection with the West’s imperialism (I am defining “the West” as the U.S. and U.K.). Harvey’s distinctly British, but often despises her own upbringing and her land’s legacy. “On Battleship Hill” is a slow historical tome that finds Harvey exploring her vocal range, then coming back to a nice rock rhythm that is unseen on the rest of the record. Eventually, the violence is imply referenced as “cruel nature” and it has “won again” in its need to progress (in this case, in trench warfare).

Harvey utilizes wonderfully detailed and rhythmic songwriting in a three-song triad examining the horrors of war. The first song in the triad, “This Glorious Land” may not be the most concrete track on the record, but it also likely the best song. With a military bugle rolling — off-tempo, I might add, to augment the strange dischord in the topic — the song opens with the open question of the West’s overwhelming legacy:

How is our glorious country ploughed?
Not by iron ploughs
Our lands is ploughed by tanks and feet.
Feet marching.

With a distinctly single-tempo line, the song keeps going like a military march, mentioning the unnecessary recent exploits of the former and present superpowers. It’s catchy and terrifying as I find myself singing “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/The fruit is deformed children,” despite my knowledge of the U.S.’ role in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In “The Words That Maketh Murder,” she uses a wonderful example of showing and not telling, Harvey’s use of truly moribund imagery — sample lyric: “soldiers fell like lumps of meat” — as she echoes the true horrors of even the most noble of pursuits (well, war-wise). The song’s timeline appears to echo that of either of the World Wars, with the coda’s use of “Summertime Blues” lyrical irony: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations.” Bitingly smart, Harvey takes on the world power structure and the down-and-dirty notions of war.

Finally, the post-climax song of the triad, “All and Everyone” is blissfully dotted with french horns and low brass. Resigned to fate, Harvey waxes lyrically on death being “everywhere and in the air” and death being “now and now and now.” Finally, the troops feel it important to sing “death to all and everyone.”

I write this with the knowledge that Harvey collaborated with Seamus Murphy to put together short films for each of the songs on the record.

War is nasty. We like to look at the two great wars as something less than nasty, as compared to those we have fought more recently. But, they weren’t. We just didn’t photograph them as much and TV didn’t exist in the same way. Harvey’s ability to impart this — much of the record references England’s role in the first World War — is what makes Let England Shake so achingly beautiful, affecting and powerful.

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    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

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