There are many, many reasons to call ‘Let England Shake’ a masterpiece and the best record of 2011. So let’s just stick with this one, shall we? PJ Harvey’s 10th studio album is, at root, a work of serious engagement with the world, at a time when people on every continent seem to be grasping the importance of doing just that.
Everywhere you turned this year, there was the smell of fear. Westerners finally got a taste of their own mortality with the deepening recession and, conversely, there was hope that things could change decisively for the better, from the wildfire insurrection of the Arab Spring to the Spanish ‘indignados’ protests and Occupy movements that followed them.
For many, such events brought an uncertainty about the future only previously glimpsed in the shellshocked months that followed 9/11. The latter, we know, has painful memories for Harvey: she acknowledged her first Mercury Prize win, for 2000’s ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’, from a hotel room in Washington DC while the Pentagon burned.
It was an experience which inspired ‘Let England Shake’, although Harvey felt compelled to wait until her skills as a songwriter could shoulder such a burden — a remarkable show of patience which has gifted us one of the most complete-sounding records in years.
Ostensibly a meditation on the twin spectres of conflict and nationalism, the album is full of odd resonances you’ll struggle to, er, shake. ‘The Last Living Rose’’s sublime lyric could be about anything from euroscepticism and the banking crisis to ex-PM Gordon Brown’s flogging of the UK’s gold reserves — but there’s no mistaking the anger in the line “past the Thames river flowing/Like gold hastily sold for nothing — NOTHING!”.
‘The Glorious Land’ is a mythical exorcising of the wicked work the neoliberal project has wrought both at home and abroad, and ‘Let England Shake’ is strewn throughout with macabre inversions of the cliché about the motherland giving life to its citizens — the “withered vine reaching from the country that I love” in ‘England’, or the strange fruit recalled in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’: “arms and legs were in the trees”.
It must be strange, though, people coming to you for soundbites as a kind of political sage off the back of one record. Harvey told NME she could see a “wave of unrest” coming in this country a full eight months before the riots kicked off, a quote which has come back to haunt her on a number of occasions. Does she get freaked out by all the questions?
“I don’t find it strange that people ask me those things,” Harvey says. “Obviously, I’ve made quite a confrontational record. [But] I’ve always resisted making any personal comment, because I’m a songwriter, not a politician or a public speaker. I find that my strengths are within the writing of song, and that is the way I choose to discuss things I want to discuss.”
Figuring, sod it, we’ll try putting that theory to the test, we chance our arm with a few questions that are met with pretty short shrift. According to Harvey, the riots “didn’t surprise me – I felt there was a building up of dissatisfaction that was going to culminate or erupt in some way or other, and that was the shape that it took”, while her thoughts on the Occupy protests are limited to a rather dry, “I support people being able to give voice to their feelings.”
Harvey seems happier talking about the satisfaction she’s taken from the record’s success, which came as reward for an intense, two-year period of research on various conflicts and campaigns conducted by the UK (the disastrous Gallipoli offensive of 1916 reportedly became something of an obsession). This must have been particularly pleasing for the one-time queen of guitar-led confessionals.
“[The reaction] strengthens the feeling I already had about trying to move into a different way of writing, and if I’m honest this album was the first experiment in that,” says Harvey. “I’m relieved that I finally reached a point where I could write a record like this. I’ve found as I’ve got older things are much more important to me — I care a lot about many things going on in the world, and I feel that at this stage in my life if I can put some voice to them there’s a sense of fulfilment at least trying to do so.
“I’ve always been an artist who pursues what’s of interest to me at that time, and the thing I need to say right now is that I’m very, very interested in what’s going on in the world around me, so naturally that will take shape within my work.”
Given her track record, it would be lunacy to predict where Harvey is headed next, but it looks like this increased sense of urgency isn’t about to evaporate any time soon.
“I’ve been writing since the day we finished recording. I’ve been writing pieces towards the new album, and I’ve been writing every day because I don’t find it easy, and I find the more I work at it the more chance I have of producing something worthwhile. I have to throw away a lot of things. But I’m sure some of it will be heading in the direction of the new record. I’ve mostly been working on words, [but] I’ve just begun experimenting musically.”
For now, Harvey’s latest work will continue to cast shadows on the shifting political landscape, a record tailor-made for times of reckoning. As the sampled strains of Niney The Observer ring out over the record’s penultimate track ‘Written On The Forehead’ (“let it burn, let it burn…”), a thought occurs: maybe this is what they’ll listen to in years to come, when the smoke clears and they’re trying to fathom the way we were.
If it is, Harvey won’t be glorying in her posterity – there are things to be done, and times to be tackled. “Many factors come together to make a piece of work really strong, and I was just at the right time and in the right place with this record,” she insists. “If I just continue to work and focus then whatever happens as a result is sort of out of my hands. My job is just to do the work.” AD
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