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PJ Harvey
Let England Shake John Doran , February 11th, 2011 06:42

No se puede... Yo lo vi... One cannot look... I have seen it... 

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya was in an ideal position to comment on The Peninsula War of 1804 - 1808. As his country stood on the brink of becoming overwhelmed by Napoleon’s armies, the elderly painter was himself becoming overwhelmed by madness and disease. His pictures from this period (The Disasters Of War) are perhaps the most potent pieces of war art the world has ever seen. One of these plates, Great Deeds! Against The Dead! shows severed body parts hanging obscenely from the branches of a tree.

It's no coincidence that ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ from Polly Harvey’s latest album Let England Shake, opens with the lines: “I’ve seen and done things that I want to forget/ I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/ Blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees.” This superior statement of protest is, weirdly, part ‘Surfin’ Bird’, part English folk song, part reverb-stunned Cocteau Twins and part colliery marching brass band. The West Country icon delivers her ice-cold lines with a compellingly childlike delivery suggesting that, like Goya, she needs to distance herself from the horror; she cannot, as an adult, look directly at it. It is this singular vocal delivery that carries the barbed lyrics of the entire album. She told a reporter from her local paper, the Bridport News: “I couldn't sing [the songs] in a rich strong mature voice without it sounding completely wrong. So I had to slowly find the voice, and this voice started to develop, almost taking on the role of a narrator."

At the end of the track she has long time collaborator John Parish sing, "What if I take my problems to the United Nations?" (as in Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’). It provides a moment of almost hilarious catharsis and reveals exactly how little hope she has that things are going to get better any time soon. We're a bloodthirsty, territorial race of mammals, and there ain’t no cure, right?

Great Deeds! Against The Dead! was cast as a bronze piece by contemporary artists Jake and Dinos Chapman in 1997 for the infamous Sensation exhibition. The brothers stand now, as they did then, head and shoulders above most of their contemporaries, and in this Goya-referencing work they made some of the most emotionally engaging modern war art since Picasso’s Geurnica. Harvey’s words reverberate with the same morbidity: “Flies swarming everyone/ death lingering, stunk/ over the whole summit peak/ flesh quivering in the heat.” (If you need persuading further, watch the video for John Parish and Harvey’s ‘Black Hearted Love’ from 2009, directed, of course, by the Chapman Brothers.) Again, it comes as little surprise to discover that Seamus Murphy, the director of the sublime promo for ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ and 11 more short films to accompany tracks from Let England Shake, was himself chosen by Harvey because of his unique skill as a war photographer. His modus operandi is to choose seemingly innocuous subjects to photograph rather than staring directly at the carnage.

At no point on this stunning album is Harvey in the thick of the action; she appears in the direct aftermath, or one degree removed from the fighting. Guardian (and occasional Quietus) writer Dorian Lynsky put it more succinctly than me recently while discussing the album on the ILX message board: “the war lyrics here are more about the history of responding to war in visual art, folksong, etc than about the event itself”. I think he's right, but the chief irony here is that several of the songs here would sit comfortably in his excellent study of popular protest songs, 33 Revolutions Per Minute.

All across Let England Shake there are samples and inclusions from other songs; accordingly, they're scattered almost carelessly, there to draw your attention elsewhere. (Admittedly, while some of the samples on the record become part of the tapestry of the whole on successive listens, this can't be said for a Regimental March bugle call by HM Irish Guards. That one stands out like a sore thumb on ‘The Glorious Land’, to the extent that the entire Quietus team was convinced it was a whimsical anti-pirating ident until they heard a finished copy.) If this is art about art then it's part of a grand tradition: the mutilated and limbless body hanging from the tree’s branches in Great Deeds! Against The Dead! was almost certainly sketched by Goya from the Belvedere Torso, a 3,000-year-old damaged statue by an unknown Athenian sculptor that is in all likelihood itself a copy of a 4,000-year-old statue. . . .

Much has been made of how different Let England Shake is to White Chalk, her last solo album proper. Of course, musically they don't sound anything alike, this being full of simple, organic folk melody, the former full of calcified and threatening ambience. But neither is this the return of Polly the Mercury Prize-winning rock star of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. Her instrument of choice here is not the relatively unfamiliar upright piano but the relatively easy-to-sling-on Autoharp and the not-taken-out-of-its-case-since-the-late-80s saxophone - two instruments she’s never recorded with before. So both albums have benefited from sonic excitement strategies that prevent the music from becoming too slick or easy to process. You're constantly unsettled by small jagged details; PJH, her trusty band of fellow musicians (John Parish, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty) and the listerner alike are left slightly uneasy, just outside their comfort zone.

Her sonic palette is simple but used to myriad effect. On ‘All And Everyone’ the Autoharp is fed through masses of reverb until it feels as if it has taken on a physical shape, like a haze of gunpowder smoke rolling across a battlefield. It is as if the cavernous post shoegaze guitars are tracing out death on the battlefield as a liminal zone between this world and the next. It feels as if death has made a physical foothold on the battlefield: “death's anchorage”. But on top of this Harvey's words hang in the air like pink mist after mortar carnage. Her singing is pastoral and dignified but ultimately distressing - almost in the style of a war poet - and reflects how the natural order is inverted by conflict, the landscape becoming a Hell on Earth: "Death hung in the smoke and clung/ to 400 acres of useless beachfront/ A bank of red earth, dripping down death."

But at all times Harvey remains detached from the action. This ‘she do the police in different voices’ approach is nothing new for her, but perhaps now people will finally stop digging for autobiographical nuggets in her lyrics. Because, well, she clearly isn’t a young infantryman who got blown apart at Gallipoli. As has been pointed out, the references to the fate of young ANZAC, British and French troops during the campaign are important and sure, ‘All And Everyone’, ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘The Colour Of The Earth’ are ostensibly about these massacres. However the first and last of these are specifically inspired by the oral histories of soldiers recorded in Maurice Shadbolt’s Voices Of Gallipoli. Yet again, this is appears to be art about art. Perhaps this is not so much a collection of anti-war songs as a call to arms for would be war photographers, writers, painters and filmmakers.

Of course this is an album that gives up its secrets slowly, like a field in Flanders gradually returning the bones of soldiers to the surface. The sample of Niney The Observer's ‘Blood And Fire’ dropped into ‘Written On The Forehead’ presumably makes the song a double reference to the Bible's Book Of Revelation. But which country to the "dinars" come from (Iraq?) and why? What is the "burning trench of oil"? The blazing oil fields of the first Gulf War? The sleevenotes tell us that ‘The Glorious Land’ and ‘In The Dark Places’ are partially inspired by extracts from Russian Folk Lyrics. This is a book containing verse used by village “wailers” after someone has died and has an entire chapter relating to the lyrics of serving soldiers. There's such depth here that I’m still going to be puzzling over this album on a daily basis for months to come.

In 2007, Harvey lifted out of a mid-career plateau (as high as this was) with White Chalk and now with Let England Shake she has shown that not only is she is her generation’s pre-eminent songwriter but, amazingly, that she is also still in her ascendancy.  

With thanks to Camilla Cole