With Let England Shake PJ Harvey confronted the political, marking a new era of cultural commentary in her work
Original release date: 14 February, 2011
Label: Island Records
“I enjoy looking like a tart and thinking like a politician,” joked PJ Harvey in 1995. For years, she certainly lived up to the second part of that statement, despite her disdain for talking about actual politics. Wary of journalists looking for dirt since her post-Rid Of Me breakdown in 1992, she stonewalled invasive questions with a deftness that would put any MP to shame. She refused to explain her lyrics, balked at discussing her private life and stayed resolutely tight-lipped when it came to current affairs or her worldviews. And though her songs were intense storms of sexuality, desire and violence, Harvey always seemed more interested in creating worlds than passing comment on the real one.
Yet Harvey’s 2011 eighth album, Let England Shake, exploded that status quo. In the course of 40 minutes and 12 songs she spans decades of England’s blood-soaked past, drawing on soldiers’ testimonies from the First World War through to modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of just sticking to bloody battlefields, it considers how the ungodly violence of war forever scars the people and places it touches, as well as its role in shaping the country Harvey calls home. Even by her chameleonic standards, it was a radical departure.
In hindsight, the global upheaval of 2011 – the Arab Spring, the death of Bin Laden, the official end of the Iraq war – suggests a fitting time to unpick messy knots of geopolitical history and cultural identity. But Let England Shake was the kind of politically-engaged album Harvey had long wanted to make. The only thing stopping her, she told The Quietus at the time, had been a lack of confidence, and a fear she wouldn’t do the weighty ideas justice. “There’s nothing worse than a bad song dealing with such things,” she insisted.
For Harvey, a ‘bad song’ was anything too dogmatic; she was determined to avoid personal soapboxing. Instead, on Let England Shake she’s a spirit medium for war’s victims, telling their stories via harrowing vignettes coloured by years of research: All & Everyone brings to life the battlefields of Gallipoli with a scholar’s eye for detail, soundtracked by mournful saxophone and Autoharp. Death is everywhere – on the unsettlingly jaunty The Words That Maketh Murder, men fall like “lumps of meat” – but songs like the ethereal On Battleship Hill, recounted by a soldier returning to Gallipoli 80 years later, don’t need gore to be powerful. “On Battleship Hill’s caved-in trenches/ A hateful feeling still lingers,” keens Harvey’s narrator over ghostly zither strings, as the familiar scent of thyme in the wind brings back memories they’ve tried to forget.
It isn’t just the lyrics that are different. For all its brutality, Let England Shake features some of Harvey’s most graceful compositions, suffusing the chilly gothic folk of 2007’s White Chalk with lusher orchestration. England is an aching pastoral of tender strums and unearthly organ; rich, warm trombone cuts through the fog of The Last Living Rose. And although Harvey turns to her faithful electric guitar on In the Dark Places, her slithery riff shudders with a different kind of heaviness to her trademark scorched-earth assaults, as if weighed down by years of grief. A decade on, it doesn’t feel outlandish to compare these beautiful, haunting, almost mystical-sounding songs to the famous war poems and Goya paintings Harvey obsessed over.
As well as making Harvey the first person to win the Mercury Prize twice, the album pushed her into a new cultural world. Radio 4 asked her to guest-edit Today; the Imperial War Museum begged to collaborate with her; she was awarded an MBE. Most significant, though, were the creative possibilities it opened up. On 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, she swapped research for field reports and wrote songs inspired by trips to Washington, Kosovo and Afghanistan. What would once have been an unlikely project for the artist who, in 1992, admitted to NME that she felt guilty for not being “concerned enough about things”, now seemed an obvious next step. “This, in some ways, feels like the start of a whole body of work,” she declared of Let England Shake in 2011, hinting at what made it such a rare triumph: it wasn’t just a masterpiece but the beginning of a whole new chapter.