US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Let England Shake

By Danny Duncan Collum | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Let England Shake
P.  J. Harvey (Vagrant Records, 2011)

England’s reputation as an island of eccentrics is longstanding, and for the past two decades P. J. Harvey has done her bit to uphold it. Polly Jean comes by it naturally, having been raised on a sheep farm by hippie artist parents who exposed her to the weirdest man in rock and roll, Harvey’s childhood hero, Captain Beefheart. She emerged in the early ’90s, displaying a gift for bizarre hairdos and costumes, a constantly re-invented musical style, and—to me—utterly inscrutable lyrics.

But on Let England Shake, Harvey’s quintessential Englishness comes to bear on an explicit, overt, and intelligible lyric theme. The album is a reflection on British history and identity as seen from the low watermark of the Blair 2000s. Blair’s bloody follies in Iraq and Afghanistan are unmistakable in songs such as “The Words That Maketh Murder,” about “soldiers falling like bits of meat,” or another about a “Glorious Land” that’s “ploughed by tanks and . . . feet marching.” But Harvey avoids merely topical protest by rooting her account in the parallel story of Britain’s earlier misadventures in the Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire.

Let England Shake was recorded in an abandoned church in Harvey’s native Dorset County. The songs are built around the droning thrash of an autoharp, with simple drumming and random percussion. When an electric guitar does turn up, there’s no rock radio sheen; instead, it sounds like it’s being played through a practice amp.

Harvey’s voice is as eccentric as her instrumental palette. It’s an eerie, sometimes child-like soprano that’s part old-time ballad singer and part Yoko Ono.

Not since William Blake ranted about the “dark satanic mills” that marred his “green and pleasant land” has England been through such a thorough and unflinching examination as this. In the end the album is a stirring act of tough-love patriotism that begs for an American imitator.