April 25, 1915. World War I is less than a year old, and the Western Front is locked in stalemate. On the orders of Field Marshal ‘Your country needs you’ Kitchener, Anzac troops lay siege to the peninsula of Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire. The purpose? To capture the forts that control the passage of the Dardanelles straits with a sub-plot of simultaneously drawing Bulgaria and Greece – Ottoman enemies – into the war on the Allied side.
What is intended as a swift operation becomes a bloody eight-month struggle across Anzac Cove, Bolton’s Ridge and Battleship Hill, with epic loss of life. The battalion leaders are either killed or shipped out wounded, leaving the stranded infantry basically, well, fucked from the off.
That [a]PJ Harvey[/a] returns to reference this specific point in time throughout her eighth studio album is not accidental.
This is a battle that represents a far bigger picture of war: the blind march towards death, the hidden motives, the lack of leadership, responsibility and accountability that leads to the same mistakes being repeated across our history. This is a record about war, but not specifically Anzac Cove, nor Afghanistan or Iraq. ‘Let England Shake’ is a record that ventures deep into the heart of darkness of war itself and its resonance throughout England’s past, present and future.
“The West’s asleep, let England shake/weighted down with silent dead” she croons with the unsettling tone of a doom-bringing soothsayer on the title track and opener, which sets the tone for the album that follows – 12 tracks of scathing criticism, heart-shattering loss and hopeless resignation. It’s tragic, it’s beautiful and, 19 years after the cathartic and uncompromising ‘Dry’ introduced her twisted howl to the world, it’s arguably her most brilliant record to date.
Bold statement? Perhaps, but ‘Let England Shake’ is an album that only the Polly Harvey of today could have written. Over two decades, she’s been one of Britain’s most consistently talented songwriters and performers, her work bristling with violence and darkness, but her focus has always been the self. The anguish of ‘Rid Of Me’, the spooky emptiness of ‘To Bring You My Love’, the sweeping romance of ‘Stories From The City…’ – these are all journeys on which the listener hitches a ride into Polly’s personal heaven or hell. But this is Harvey declaring herself a political animal, calling out to her brethren.
So how does she manage to steer the record away from the rocks of holier-than-thou evangelism? By inventing a palette of tragic characters that inhabit the songs, from Louis the Anzac, lost forever up on the hill in ‘The Colour Of The Earth’, to the protagonist of the title track, who she implores to, “Smile, smile Bobby, with your lovely mouth/Pack up your troubles, let’s head out to the fountain of death”. Their names are insignificant, their lives too. Harvey implores you to weep for them, and yourself.
With long-term collaborators John Parish, Mick Harvey and Flood assuming their regular duties, the sound is rich, organic and startlingly varied. ‘On Battleship Hill’ jangles along, before breaking into ear-piercing falsetto, rolling percussion and bleak repetition (“Cruel nature has won again”), while ‘Written On The Forehead’ sweeps across the album’s barren no-man’s land – the sample of Niney The Observer’s ‘Blood And Fire’ rings out like a passing bell.
Francis Ford Coppola can lay claim to the war movie. Ernest Hemingway the war novel. Polly Jean Harvey, a 41-year-old from Dorset, has claimed the war album. And like Coppola and Hemingway, she calls it straight: “Death was everywhere/ In the air and in the sounds coming off the mounds of Bolton’s Ridge/ Death’s anchorage.”