PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, released in February, won the 2011 Mercury Prize for best album from the UK and Ireland. Was it a deserving winner?
Louis was my dearest friend
Fighting in the ANZAC trench
Louis ran forward from the line
I never saw him again
Later in the dark
I thought I heard Louis’ voice
Calling for his mother, then me
— The Colour Of The Earth, PJ Harvey
War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Well, that’s not completely true. It builds nations but isn’t such a good deal for the poor bastards sent to fight for Queen and country. Such is the central theme of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake.
In the wake of England’s summer of discontent it was perhaps no surprise that PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake won 2011’s Mercury Prize for best album from the UK and Ireland.
That central theme about once great England, forged by warfare and civil discord, now struggling with its place in history, chimed nicely with the zeitgeist and Let England Shake’s title alone would have grabbed the Mercury Prize judges’ attention.
It’s a concept album that’s a state of the nation critique but it’s also a bloody good set of songs.
Let England Shake’s visceral lyrics may focus on war and death, with the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign a recurring source of fascination, but the music has a lightness of touch that provides illumination in the dark places.
Sparse arrangements marshaled by ex-Bad Seed Mick Harvey and long-time Harvey collaborator, John Parish, accompany Harvey’s soothing vocals to drag listeners down history’s laneways. This is political protest music but it’s protest music without the hectoring dirge-like tone too often prevalent in the genre.
Highlights are many – the spritely opening title track’s first lines encapsulate the album’s preoccupations (‘The West’s asleep/Let England shake/Weighted down with silent dead’), The Glorious Land rattles and hums with deadly intent about an ‘Engerland’ built on ‘tanks and feet marching’, All And Everyone’s suffocating atmosphere brilliantly evokes bone crunching wartime battles for beachfront property.
Final track The Colour Of The Earth is a moving tribute to a fallen ANZAC comrade, Louis, who is ‘still up on that hill…nothing more than a pile of bones’. It deserves to be aired every ANZAC Day.
During her 20-year and eight-album career, Polly Jean Harvey’s music has often been easier to admire than truly love but Let England Shake, despite its grim subject matter, is her most accessible album since 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea also won the Mercury Prize.
Long may she reign.
earworms: Let England Shake, The Glorious Land, The Colour Of The Earth