I have never ever been a PJ Harvey fan. I saw her in concert back in 1995, opening for Live (shortly after Throwing Copper came out, before Ed Kowalczyk crawled really far up his own ass and started making minor-league Christian rock – oh and also trying to fuck his bandmates out of publishing money and, in a move of almost Palinesque delusion, demanding a six figure “lead singer bonus” to perform at some festival) and the only think I remember about her set is that it annoyed the living shit out of me. So I don’t really know, apart from boredom, what motivated me to queue up her new album, Let England Shake, on NPR’s (enjoy it while it lasts, kids) First Listen site. I know it was late at night and I was taking an apprehensive look around the internet to see what new music might be lurking there. Since e-Music bought their one-way ticket to Sucksville, I’ve relied heavily on free streaming sites to give me access to dozens of albums a month. So far, I gotta say I’m fairly pleased with the results.
Let England Shake is a pretty awesome record, which surprises me, given my previous experience with PJ Harvey’s music. I enjoyed it so much on First Listen that I went out and bought the thing yesterday (are you getting this, EMI? You could’ve released Dark Night of the Soul a year earlier, you know, if you understood how to support and distribute quality music. But no, you had to get all pants-shitty over First Listen getting people excited to purchase your wares, you fucking morons) and I’ve been listening to it nearly nonstop ever since. It’s got this deceptively simple, almost Velvet Underground thing going on some songs, complete with jangly electric guitar and Guitar 101 chord progressions. Throughout the album, the instrumentation is pretty sparse, allowing more room for Harvey’s lamentations.
And make no mistake, Let England Shake has lamentations to spare. It’s an anti-war album that does the nifty trick of basically conflating World War I (billed at the time of waging as “The War to End All Wars”) with every war that came after it, especially the two that England is currently involved in, thanks in large part to Tony Blair’s willingness to go anywhere (including, obviously, the gay bar) and do anything for his good buddy George W. Bush. I guess alliances mean never having to tell your friends that they’re war-mongering dickheads. PJ Harvey is, understandably, still pissed off about the Iraq and Afghanistan things on account of because they’re still going on. It must really give her the red ass (it sure gives me the red ass) that the “liberation” of Iraq is apparently still incomplete when the people of Egypt managed to set themselves free after 18 days in a public square. And – gasp! – the Egyptians did it without help from a major Western power.
Partly because of Harvey’s banshee howl (in a good way, not in a Robert Plant way) and partly because of the austere instrumentation, Let England Shake comes at you kinda like a message found in the wasteland of a long-dead civilization. The aliens or Vault dwellers (I assume that, if you read Bollocks!, you have played Fallout or you know someone who routinely plays Fallout) might find this album, listen to it, and say, “So that’s how they undid themselves.” Or they might just quote “Battleship Hill” – “Cruel nature has won again.” And those wasteland-wanderers will sense the tragedy of our destruction in the often gorgeous rock music that underscores the bitterness of PJ Harvey’s lyrics.
Harvey wisely eschews the trite (but certainly true) tactic of simply declaring that war is hell and asking us all to please just knock it the fuck off. She opts instead for the sort of visceral reportage that drives the point straight to your bones; “The Words that Maketh Murder” tells of “soldiers fell like lumps of meat” with their limbs strewn about the trees, “All and Everyone” describes “A bank of red earth, dripping down death”, and “Written On the Forehead” has refugees swimming through a “10,000 tonnes of sewage” to escape the carnage. “The Words that Maketh Murder” also brilliantly uses a line from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” as an outro: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” The melody of the line is gorgeous and Harvey’s wry delivery answers the question exactly the way you’d expect.
Scanning the liner notes, I’ve discovered that Harvey sampled and borrowed from a lot of sources for Let England Shake and no single song on the album has sent me running for the original quicker than “Written On the Forehead,” which features a sample from “Blood and Fire” by Niney the Observer. I’m not a huge dub/reggae guy, but I’m on a mission to acquire some Niney forthwith. That chorus kills. It’s fitting that Harvey pulled samples (and “inspiration”, as the liner notes say; some of the tracks were inspired by “the writings of L.A. Carlyon” and a couple were apparently inspired by a book of Russian folk lyrics) from a wide variety of sources, given her subject matter. It’s easy to take down the big powers for their warlike behavior (and certainly necessary from time to time), but Let England Shake gives the sense that stopping England and America from making war isn’t going to be enough. War happens among the impoverished nations of Africa, and throughout the entire world. The sane solution isn’t to stop it in a few places, it’s to stop it everywhere. Of course, that’s pie-in-the-sky idealism on my part and PJ Harvey does not seem to indulge in it. The last thing she’s suggesting in these songs is that peace is possible. Indeed, Let England Shake seems to weep tears of sadness for the heavy cost of war and tears of rage for the fact that peace is so unlikely to be seriously attempted. But if it’s human nature to make war (and, sadly, it certainly seems to be), making beauty out of that grisly subject is also in our nature and in that sense, there’s a sliver of hope to be found in Let England Shake.