Last month PJ Harvey won the Mercury Prize for her latest album, Let England Shake. She was the first woman to win the prize back in 2001, is the first artist to win it twice and has won it with an album that is determinedly anti-war.
Taking Iraq and Afghanistan as her starting point, this a departure from the deeply personal explorations of her albums to date. Harvey has said she wanted to write this album for years but has waited until she had the writing skills to do it.
It has been worth the wait. This is a considered, deeply-felt collection of songs replete with the stark imagery of war – with arms and legs in trees, deformed children, and soldiers falling like lumps of meat. It traces the suffering, loss and waste of war.
Harvey returns repeatedly to the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War to explore her themes. The campaign, an attempt by British and French troops to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), is often cited as the driving force behind the Turkish nationalist movement and plays a key role in the myth-making of Australian and New Zealand nationhood. The campaign was a failure and resulted in a protracted clash of empires with massive loss of life on all sides. It’s easy to see the parallels with current imperialist wars.
The music, in contrast to the subject and imagery, is beautiful – applying Harvey’s pop-punk aesthetic to music more rooted in folk traditions. But it is by no means a folk album nor would it sit neatly in the “protest music” camp. It’s theatrical, recognisably Polly Jean, and several moments will throw the listener straight back to the Harvey of her indie roots circa 1993.
Politically, it’s difficult to draw any conclusion from the album – it’s ambiguous and intentionally so. Harvey has said herself that she wanted the album to reflect a human and emotional response to war and has taken as her inspiration many first-hand accounts from people caught up in conflicts – both soldiers and civilians, on all sides of wars and from many different eras. Predictably enough, given this starting point, she concludes, “It’s not going to change…it’s actually human nature; the way that we go on this endless cycle of attacking each other.”
The continuing wars, the Arab Spring and the crisis have brought a relevance and an urgency to her album that Harvey recognises. She has also said of Let England Shake, “In some ways the record doesn’t feel like it is part of me at all it feels like it belongs to the moment that the world is in.”
In an industry still depressingly dominated by male artists, Let England Shake is a personal triumph for PJ Harvey but the recognition and praise it has attracted should also be heartening, not just for women in the industry, but anyone who wants to make art that is an uncompromising comment on the world we live in.
Let England Shake is out now
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