Saturday, 2 April 2011
Let England Shake
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The singer-songwriter, P J Harvey, has reinvented herself as a contemporary Wilfred Owen on her eighth album, Let England Shake. After eighteen months of research, Harvey has crafted a suite of ambivalent, beautiful songs about war and imperialism. In a bold statement of intent, Harvey chose to premiere her new album not, as you might expect, on Later with Jools Holland, but on The Andrew Marr Show, where she sang in front of an unimpressed, Gordon Brown.
Such promotional antics could have become another rock star’s desperate attempt to be taken seriously as a political animal. Yet, there is no political posturing in these songs. There is never a moment when Harvey sounds like a would-be soap box preacher rather than a singer at the very top of her creative game. Using a mesmerising range of vocal registers, she inhabits her descriptions of man’s inhumanity to man with a shocking lyricism.
With creative audacity, Harvey can, for example, combine English folk music and nursery rhyme to devastating effect. Hummable tunes are skewed by shrapnel rhythms and unpredictable stresses that leave one disorientated as if caught in the mist of a musical gas attack. At the same time, the lyrics oscillate between an opaqueness (I live and die through England./It leaves sadness) and a gut-punching directness (What is the glorious fruit of our land?/Its fruit is orphan children).
Songs do reference particular conflicts, especially the Gallipoli campaign or a survivor’s account from the First World War (Walker’s in the wire/limbs pointing upwards./There are no birds singing/ “The White Cliffs of Dover”). Yet, there is a universal quality to these songs. They could be about any historical battle zone from Thermopylae to the Somme to Basra. This remarkable collection of songs and lamentations sound as if they are echoing down through the centuries of violence. All this is achieved with a voice so contemporary and unique that Let England Shake is evidence of P J Harvey's claim to be a national musical treasure, but one that has the power to make us collectively uncomfortable.