It is no secret that I am a massive PJ Harvey fan. She demonstrates something that I love in musicians, and something we see relatively rarely, which is an evolution of style. She has evolved from early hard-rock albums like Dry (1992) to the beatutifully dark Is This Desire? (1998) and on to the wonderfully weird White Chalk (2007) with plenty more in between. Rolling Stone have a nice timeline, from Dry to White Chalk, which you can check out here.
That timeline, clearly not updated since the late 2000s, misses one of the most important albums of Harvey’s career. It is this album that I have listened to a lot over the last three years, and I have been listening to it even more in recent weeks. Let England Shake (2011) is a concept album. All of the songs explore the theme of war, and there are many references to The Great War, the centenary of which is being marked in these weeks.
As I completed an assignment last year on Marie Martin, an Irish VAD who was stationed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, I listened to Let England Shake and it provoked thoughts about the futility of war and the heartbreak and destruction it leaves behind. The album, in addition explores sounds related to war including the trumpet cavalry call on “The Glorious Land” and the rhythms which mirror marching on “All and Everyone”.
Imagery throughout the album evokes war times, not just on the battlefields, but also the society which was left behind, the women; those who returned, broken by the horrors that they had witnessed; the subsequent generations.
Holding up their rifles high,
holding their young wives who wave goodbye.
So our young men hit with guns in the dirt
In the Dark Places
Walker sees the mist rise
Over no man’s land
He sees in front of him
A smashed up waste ground
There are no fields or trees
No blades of grass
Just unhurried ghosts are there
Hanging in the wire
Hanging In The Wire
Death lingering stunk
Flies swarming everyone
Over the whole summit peak
Flesh quivering in the heat
The Words That Maketh Murder
I can’t believe that as we mark the centenary of World War 1, with the atrocities of World War 2 still in living memory, we appear to be balancing on the edge of World War 3, with war pockets in so many places: Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, The Congo… It would make you wonder about the future of humanity.
I looked for hope in the lyrics of Let England Shake and found little evidence, bar the reference to “the scent of thyme carried on the wind” in “On Battleship Hill”. That doesn’t mean that Let England Shake is a hope-less album, however. The tragic lyrics are set to beautiful, and often uplifing melodies which make this an album that I return to again, and again, and once again.
There is a Let England Shake YouTube channel which has a series of 12 short films by film-maker, Seamus Murphy. Seamus is an Irish war photographer who began photographing in Afghanistan in 1994. After seeing an exhibition of his, PJ Harvey asked him to make the series of 12 films to accompany the album. His website is here.