A cannonball is fired across an expansive battlefield. A quietly confident woman, bedecked in a regimental uniform, strides across the field strumming an autoharp. Following her, a band of similarly garbed musicians carry bugles and enormous marching bass drums. The woman chronicles the brutal events, recounting stories of having seen “soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief”.
Fast forward several hundred years and the same woman is clutching the same autoharp in a television studio, singing of how “England’s dancing days are done”. Except this time her audience are not wounded warriors or decaying corpses but the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, a man who had organised the financing of an unnecessary war which took countless people’s lives.
Let England Shake is stacked high with rotting flesh and dead bodies. But while the tales of bloodshed are shared in almost pornographic detail, our author also spends time revealing the tears shed by widowed women and orphaned children. Opening with the line, “Death was everywhere”, the song ‘All and Everyone’ is a perfect snapshot of PJ Harvey as self-appointed war correspondent. Backed by her faithful autoharp, chiming electric guitar, mournful brass and simple drums, PJ employs the falsetto which she introduced on her previous album, White Chalk. The falsetto is particularly effective in ‘On Battleship Hill’, where the fragility of the vocals intensify the lyrical concerns of cruel nature. In ‘England’, Harvey plays with using backward backing vocals and somehow manages to evoke both Mary Margaret O’ Hara and Turkish gypsies.
Prior to the album’s release, the aforementioned television appearance of ‘Let England Shake’ and the leak of ‘Written on the Forehead’ seemed to point to the possibility of the album being heavily based around looped vocal samples. However, the Four Lads’ sample featured on the television performance of the title track has been replaced with a xylophone imitating the sampled vocal melody. And so, ‘Written on the Forehead’ actually turns out to be the only track which centres around a sampled loop, yet despite borrowing from a reggae tune (Niney the Observer’s ‘Blood and Fire’), it doesn’t feel out of place within the context of the album.
What PJ Harvey excels at is creating a unified mood within each album she produces, without ever covering old ground and although Let England Shake is wholly consumed with death, the album never slips into gloominess. It’s the lightness of touch which strengthens this collection, the contrast of dark lyrics with, often, jaunty melodies. While this may not be Harvey’s finest long player, it is certainly a work of substance, a record of our times and of England’s history. Let’s just hope David Cameron is listening.