Let England Shake
Popular music has been nestling in the bosom of broad-based arts and entertainment TV programmes for so long now, we’re barely roused when any artist appears to do a turn. It was odd and genuinely enthralling, though, to see PJ Harvey sitting on a British Sunday morning political show’s couch in a black-feather jerkin last April, before performing the title track from her new album. Guest Gordon Brown watched – and surely shrivelled a little inside – as she sang in her pure, trilling voice of how England was ‘weighted down with silent dead’.
At no time in her 20-year career has the overt political statement ever been Harvey’s way, and she’s said of this latest effort that she ‘[doesn’t] feel qualified to sing from a political standpoint’, so sings rather as ‘a human being affected by politics’. Now, then, this most mysteriously compelling, unselfconsciously provocative and laudably plain different of English singer-songwriters has turned her attention to her homeland – to its troubled soul and confused mind, its haunted past and uncertain future, and its changing identity. No fingers are wagged, no tubs thumped, but Let England Shake is in many ways a protest record, albeit an intensely personal and vividly impressionistic one.
Harvey taps traditional folk forms (in the exquisitely desolate ‘On Battleship Hill’, the wracked, rebetika-toned ‘England’, the round-singing style of ‘The Colour of the Earth’), and her beloved autoharp and piano play their parts, but the electrified swing underpinning ‘In the Dark Places’ and ‘Bitter Branches’ recalls Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Everywhere, Harvey’s nuanced control of dark and light, sharp and suffused, spirited and reflective is a joy, her confidence a thrill to hear. Fear of hyperbole is all that holds us back from the fifth star.