The overt anti-war message of PJ Harvey’s new album, Let England Shake, marks a departure for a singer better known for intimate and inward-looking songs of relationships and emotions.
But this collection opens with the lines, “The West’s asleep, let England shake/weighted down with silent dead”.
This is an England rotting in dreams of fading empire, defined by “stinking alleys” and “drunken beatings”.
The album is awash with imagery from the First World War, though most songs are not tied to a specific conflict.
However three tracks relate directly to the senseless, bloody Gallipoli campaign, where Australian soldiers were trapped on a beach for months as they unsuccesfully attempted to invade Ottoman Turkey.
The parallels with more recent Western interventions are implicit.
Harvey built her reputation through the stark imagery and harsh angles of her music.
In a career spanning nearly 20 years she has constantly reinvented herself and her sound from the flayed, grating electric blues of early albums.
Let England Shake goes further than her last album, White Chalk, in moving away from a rock sound to something closer to folk. The arrangements are subtle, rich, but emotionally drained.
A rich range of instruments fills out the sound including bugles, piano, guitars and an autoharp.
Though the subject matter is grim, she leavens it with dark humour. “The Words That Maketh Murder” features a sudden chorus of “I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations” from Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues. The appearance of the melody from “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is a subtle reminder that empires do not last.
And its “folk” sources are varied. “Written On The Forehead” samples Niney the Observer’s roots reggae “Blood And Fire”—an uplifting song about the apocalypse.
Harvey makes a point of never explaining her lyrics, saying that listeners are free to interpret her work. But some of the titles and lyrics here are far from elliptical.
She has said, “When I talk about England, I wanted ambiguity, so that I could talk about emotions that anybody might feel regardless of what country they live in.
“I tried to describe those feelings of love/hate and push/pull that you have with your country of origin. All of the disappointments and hopes that you have.”
This is a haunting and mournfully addictive album, filled with insidious melodies.
Let England Shake by PJ Harvey is out now on Island records