Jean Encoule

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island)

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“England’s dancing days are done.”

Songs of conflict, songs of harm, songs bereft of coquettish charm … otherworldly songs of the impending death that ultimately befalls all who attempt to impose their will on unwilling subjects … that PJ Harvey is being lined up by the Imperial War Museum’s head of collections, Roger Tolson, for possible future assignments in conflict zones where the British Army is engaged, in a war songs composer capacity, should come as little surprise. On the strength on her eighth studio album, Let England Shake, she is the right woman for the job.

Interviewed by John Wilson recently on Radio 4’s Front Row on the very subject, Polly Jean confirmed: “I would (have) relish(ed) that … I find myself more and more yearning to do work like that, even if there is no such appointment, to just go out there anyway”. However absurd the proposition may at first seem on paper, it has already garnered support from Jeremy Dellar, 2004 Turner Prize sculptor, whose striking work, 5 March 2007, was created from the wreck of a car blown to hell and back on the streets of Baghdad, and caused shock and awe when exhibited at the Imperial War Museum in September 2010.

If the gravitas already being afforded Let England Shake is indicative of what lies within, then its touting as a future Mercury Prize winner cannot be dismissed as premature. Whatever transpires, Miss Harvey’s bid to become the aural equivalent of a Goya, a Nash, a Moore, a Howson, a McQueen or a McCullin, should be respected and revered, not only for taking issue with the wounded soldier stance as a concept, but for bringing a female perspective to an ever-growing list of male names.

Not by accident did Harvey elect to debut the album’s title track on the Andrew Marr Show, in front of one of the architects-in-chief of the current arrogant Afghan war: Gordon Brown. The conceit of the Blair administration in estimating that they could succeed where the might of the Russian army had failed is the absolute conceit of a small island nation that has, for some misguided reason, long believed that the rest of the world is not fit to lick its polished boots.

Composed in the mindset of “official war song correspondent”, and recorded in a Dorset church with usual suspects (John Parish, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty), Let England Shake has been expertly engineered by Rob Kirwin and atmospherically mixed by Flood, with assistance from Catherine Marks and John Catlin. The overall sound is crafted from a folk-rock base, honed by auto harps, trombones, saxophones, xylophones, mellotrons, Rhodes, pianos, organs and, in places (‘In The Dark Places’, ‘Bitter Branches’), the kind of guitars we associate with Harvey’s classic two-decades old debut Dry. Running to a full length of 40:16, the album’s 12 compositions barely have time to outstay their welcome before it is time to press ‘play’ once again. In these end days of the overlong, the indulgent, the much wrought and the expansive, Polly’s clarity, brevity, strength and depth are much to her credit.

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