Being English is tricky business. Don’t @ me. I’m not interested. Not through my own sense of English entitlement and arrogance. I’m just tired.
In Rob Young’s incredible book Electric Eden, which explores the heritage of traditional music forms against the British landscape, he suggests that only the English have lost touch with their folk heritage. In Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as across Europe, teenagers are fully aware of their folk songs and dances. In England, that heritage is an embarrassment. Bands like Fairport Convention, Pentangle and the Watersons, who sought to introduce folk idioms to a young audience in the ’60s and ’70s, are often seen as finger-in-the-ear “folk”-rock groups, brewing their own rancid cider and knitting their own itchy sweaters and living somehow off the grid.
In his memoir, The Progressive Patriot, Billy Bragg remembers the awkward and traumatic experience of “country dancing,” something that all English primary schools made their pupils do at the age of 10. What better time to make children dance together in a formalised and old-fashioned manner than that difficult point where they become aware of each other’s differences but aren’t clear why that feels weird. Another nail in the coffin for English folk-tradition…
Is Let England Shake folk music? In many regards, yes it is. It’s music for the people. It also summons up a time and a place. Or rather, many times in that place. That place is England, as the title suggests. But the time? Any time that England has been at war.
The first peep we got of this strange, arcane music was when Polly Jean Harvey appeared on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, equipped with a autoharp and strummed out the title track. This was a world away from Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love and Stories From The City. Those albums, incredible as they each are, were rooted in the Mississippi delta. Harvey’s early records were driven along by wild bluesy guitar and wailing banshee vocals. They dealt in sex and fire and menstrual blood and physical torture.
Let England Shake wasn’t a complete departure though. Her previous album, not counting the John Parrish partnered A Woman A Man Walked By, was the gossamer thin White Chalk. This album transferred Harvey’s music back across the Atlantic to the chalky hills and cliffs of the south of England. Here, Harvey sang of death and being pulled into the heather and swallowed by the ancient landscape. That album haunted me like Sylvia Plath’s poem “Wuthering Heights.” That aching desire to be obliterated by time and geography. Harvey resembled the ghost of a Victorian school-teacher. The songs were driven by simple rhythmic piano and Harvey’s keening voice.
Let England Shake was more popular. It’s more political and less personal. Maybe. Or maybe it’s both. Musically, it’s more inventive. Like that other great British band from the ’90s, Radiohead, Polly Jean doesn’t stand still musically. She’s always inventing. But while the Oxford band have often gone into a musical psyche that seems to eschew melody and harmony in exchange for ‘challenge’, Let England Shake is full of wonder.
Like Tom Waits’ Island recordings, the title track rattles along on a musical motif from a much earlier time. The xylophone riff echoes the old novelty record “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and this is important as the album will deal with all manner of conflicts. The First World War is an obvious touchstone, and the fallen men in Flanders’ fields are ghosts treading throughout the record. The dead sea captains standing sentinel from any number of naval conflicts also haunt the listener. The conflict at Gallipoli is present and accounted for, as are the (then current) conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And much of the music echoes back into the psycho-geography of these times. Simple chord progressions and snatches of saxophone, percussion, autoharp make for what should be a challenging listen. And lyrically it does challenge. The orphaned and deformed children of “This Glorious Land,” Harvey’s dissection of the Afghan situation, are not easy images to hold. Yet hold them we must.
In “The Words That Maketh Murder,” Harvey channels the ghost of Eddie Cochran with her desire to “take my problems to the United Nations.” But this is a long way from ’50s rockabilly. And the images of war and conflict and death continue to flood through these songs. The term ‘concept album’ has become a dirty word, which is a shame as there seems to be a very clear concept here: the frailty of human lives, the suffering of all under the wheels of war. Harvey will drop in a sample of Jamaican producer Niney The Observer into “Written On The Forehead,” reminding us that the albums reach is global and not parochial.
And this is the problem with being English. We get accused of being parochial, of being absorbed by our own little world, our own little island. We are too often guilty of turning our backs on the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s an island mentality. We find ourselves bogged down by a cultural ballast: Romans, Tudors, Victorians, two world wars, one world cup. The Beatles and Shakespeare are the pinnacles of the written word and recorded sound, and they’re ours (and dontyouforgetit). We like to revise history to paint ourselves as the good guys. Perhaps everyone does that. The truth is more complex and impossible to pin down.
That Harvey has managed to weave a magnificent, angry, tapestry that manages to evoke the horrors of war across centuries without ever seeming incoherent or inconsistent is what makes Let England Shake so magical. Polly Jean Harvey is currently our most brilliant artist. This record is her finest achievement.