Album: PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Island)
On what may be her best album, Polly Harvey offers a portrait of her homeland as a country built on bloodshed and battle, not so much a police state as a nation in thrall to military endeavour, however impotent and wasteful that has become. A place paralysed by fascination with past victories, hidebound by the ghosts of an imperial past.
Perhaps prompted by the nightmare atrocities of "The Soldier", from Harvey and John Parish's A Woman a Man Walked By, it's a picture both pathetic and poignant, the images of brutalising war mingled with her lingering affection for the country. "I live and die through England," she admits in the witchy invocation "England", acknowledging that "it leaves sadness, it leaves a taste, a bitter one." A bitterness that boils into anger as she surveys the wanton carnage in a song like "The Words That Maketh Murder", albeit the quiet anger of the coda sardonically recontextualising Eddie Cochran: "What if I take my problem to the United Nations?".
The song's rolling groove, as with the arrangements throughout the album, has a subdued, somewhat brow-beaten tone, as if she and her accomplices John Parish, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty are deliberately trying not to be too testosterously rock'n'roll in their approach. In one sense, this acts as a counterbalance to the violence of the subject-matter; in a wider sense, though, it's a distinctly post-war tone, the diffident, regretful sound remaining when a generation of young men has been wiped out in some Great War. When Harvey elsewhere sings of "unburied ghosts hanging in the wire", it's delivered in faint, etiolated manner over a lonely throb, a ghost of a song in tribute to the dead.
Even the fuller arrangements seem to have had the life beaten out of them: the deflated sax and trombone accompanying the bloody advances on hilltop, beach and ridge in "All and Everyone" are like cows lowing at the slaughter, while nothing conjures up the "grey, damp filthiness of ages" of our national decline quite as accurately as the wheezing sax and weedy guitar in "The Last Living Rose", a tattered flag raised over a muddy wasteland.
There are hints and echoes of other cultural modes in some songs. "On Battleship Hill", in which the scent of thyme on a former battlefield confirms the ultimate victory of "cruel nature", sounds like a Western theme song, while "The Glorious Land", with its complaints at how the land is ploughed by tanks and marching feet, and its fruit is orphaned children, could be a partisan anthem from Vietnam or Palestine or any comparable resistance movement. And with its thrumming autoharp, "The Colour of the Earth", a song about Anzac troops at Gallipoli on which Mick Harvey aptly shares lead vocals, has the ageless simplicity of an old folk song from the dominions. Coming right at the album's end, it's a sharp reminder that our military heritage is not ours alone, but an export whose grim repercussions are felt across the world.
DOWNLOAD THIS The Last Living Rose; The Words That Maketh Murder; All and Everyone; Hanging in the Wire
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