The past few days I’ve been reading, on Rob Young’s recommendation, Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns, an excellent survey of how British artists and writers in the mid-20th Century tried to reconcile a modernist impulse with the residual lure of English cultural traditions.
This morning, I was deep in the chapter on artistic responses during wartime; studies and collections on the subject of Englishness designed as a kind of emotional consolation in the midst of battle and austerity. It provided an interesting analogue to PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake”, which I was listening to at the same time, a record about nationality and the meaning of nationality, especially in times of war.
I’ve been meaning to write about this quite brilliant record for the best part of two months now, and I’m conscious that a lot of what I could say has been effectively superseded by Andrew Mueller’s review in the new issue of Uncut, the work of a man who knows far more about war than I could ever wish to. I can’t recommend his review enough, but I still think it’s worth adding a few notes; after all, one of “Let England Shake”’s many virtues is its easy deployment of ideas, its capacity to be thought-provoking.
Increasingly, it’s becoming very clear that PJ Harvey approaches her albums as distinct and self-contained projects, each with a finely-wrought, cohesive and fastidious plan behind the set of songs. With some serendipity, “Let England Shake” arrived at Uncut around the same time as Anna Calvi’s debut album: not a terrible piece of work, by any stretch, but one which seems to take the most obvious and commercial of PJ Harvey’s creative personae and runs with it.
Calvi’s album, with its slightly hackneyed, crimson-lipped sense of melodrama, feels very much like the sort of record the more pragmatic parts of the record industry would have liked Harvey to make as the follow-up to “To Bring You My Love”. Instead, she embarked on an unpredictable and generally hugely rewarding trajectory away from what was expected of her, so that in 2011 she’s arrived at an unusual place for an artist of her generation: a genuine auteur who, in spite of being signed to a major label, appears able to develop her career and follow her muse into relatively esoteric corners, more or less unaffected by marketing expediencies.
That said, “Let England Shake” is full of catchy, insidious tunes, much more immediate than its uncanny and lovely predecessor, “White Chalk”. It remains, though, a strange-sounding record, at once strident and ethereal. A song like “The Words That Maketh Murder” seems to roll along at an odd bucolic skank, while the spidery guitar jangle vaguely recalls – not for the last time on “Let England Shake” – the hazier reveries concocted by Johnny Marr in the earlyish days of The Smiths.
There’s something of The Cocteau Twins here and elsewhere, too; the occasional whoop in Harvey’s voice seems pitched in an unlikely space between Liz Fraser and Ari Up. As the album begins with the title track, the high register she unveiled on “White Chalk” has gained a new pointedness; if the word weren’t loaded with pejorative implications, “witchy” might not be a bad word for it.
With the rustic brass puncturing songs at unexpected moments, and a predominantly rickety, handcrafted air, “Let England Shake” sometimes feels like indigenous folk music modernised in an eccentric way, not least when Harvey’s voice is pitted against the blokeish, conversational harmonies of John Parish and Mick Harvey. I keep thinking of Trembling Bells, and their way of finding a new method of negotiating with English tradition.
But then again, there’s a spindliness to the sound which also, less canonically, seems to echo a certain strain of wan indie-pop, given an unexpected new imperative: “On Battleship Hill”, in particular, is reminiscent in parts of Belle & Sebastian’s “The State I Am In” (no bad thing, I should say).
As an album, dense with allusion and knowledge, constructed with a meticulous thematic unity which extends across both sound and content, and performed with a vigour and passion which belies any suspicions of academic detachment, it’s an unqualified success; a marker for major British records in 2011. As ever, I’d be interested to know what you think, when you’ve heard it…