The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire (Or, Let England Shake Turns 10)

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PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Released February 14th, 2011 on Island Records

Produced by Flood, Mick Harvey, John Parish, and PJ Harvey

Peaked at #32 US, #8 UK

Singles:

“The Words That Maketh Murder”

“The Glorious Land”

“Written On The Forehead”

For a woman who initially staked her name on dry, thrashing alt-rock and then won a Mercury Prize for an album with more than half a foot in New York City, Polly Jean Harvey has taken more than her fair share of inspiration from her native England. Let England Shake, however, takes inspiration from its creator’s homeland in the same sense as Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor: a knowing examination of the problems, and a prescient idea of the direction it’s taking. The Monitor posited the American Civil War against the backdrop of 2010s New Jersey, predicting the us vs. them feeling that would permutate America by the end of the decade. Let England Shake takes the English myths of national welfare and strength in unity and smashes them against the cruel chalk cliffs of its coastline. Consider: the title track, whose lyrics start with “The west’s asleep, let England shake / weighted down with silent dead / I fear our blood won’t rise again / England’s dancing days are done / Another day, Bobby, for you to come home / and tell me indifference is won,” was first performed publicly on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the audience. Less than a month later David Cameron’s Conservative Party would win a majority government; Cameron, hoping to shore up his right-populist bona fides, would inexplicably commit to a referendum on the UK exiting the European Union. You all saw how that turned out – how that continues to turn out. The sun, as it turns out, has set on the British Empire.

PJ Harvey traced this decline through to England’s obsession with war, and the waste that a century of total war wreaked upon the nation. The ghosts of Gallipoli, a battle in 1915 where England landed an army on the shores of the Ottoman Empire and lost 30,000 men, are brought up on more than one song; the album positions England as a land shaped by and ultimately smashed apart by war. “Withered vine reaching,” she sings on “England”, “you leave a taste, a bitter one.” The lyrics are very much rooted in the Great War that killed off most of a generation of English men, but its lessons carry forward very easily into the 21st Century. The bleakness of history bleeds forward into the present and tints the future in a dull red haze. The nation-state still wastes its young; the enemy, then as now, organized via markets and the imperative needs that issue forth from them. It’s probably no surprise that she won the Mercury again for it; it’s rare that so obviously prescient an album comes along. It’s also not much of a surprise that it was more or less the critical consensus pick for album of the year, 2011. She’s never been an artist to do anything the normal way; she’ll careen back and forth between slick alterna-pop albums, brittle piano ballad albums, and raunchy grunge guitars. The follow-up to Let England Shake, a tonally similar if much more obscure effort called The Hope Six Demolition Project, was about a housing project in Washington, DC. Let England Shake is, then, one of those moments where Ms. Harvey’s errant, erratic muse hit upon just the right combination of tone and image to achieve perfection.

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