The average anti-war song is often a pretty basic affair and they often work best like that.
Edwin Starr’s version of “War” is the archetype of this. It is literally a shout of pain. And then there are songs about soldiers returning to a land that would rather forget, as with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” or most memorably in Eric Bogle’s “And the band played Waltzing Matilda”. But in Let England Shake Polly Jean Harvey has attempted something more considered and nuanced, something more lyrical, poetic and thoughtful.
Harvey tries to play the role of an unofficial war-artist in her album, although the ambition is not as out-of-court as one might imagine. The Imperial War Museum’s commissions of conflict art in recent years have been far from jingoistic. For example, Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007 was the rusted wreckage of a car from the bombing of the Al-Mutanabbi book market in Iraq.
Without firsthand experience, Harvey has attempted to create an impression of war and its consequences on those who fight them, and those in whose name they are fought.
In several songs (“Battleship Hill”, “The Colour of Earth”) she works on accounts of the Gallipoli landings of 1915, although this does tend to create rather a distanced and abstract criticism of “war in general” rather than concrete material about current conflicts. But elsewhere there is a more direct focus, e.g., focusing on the human cost of conflict on the people of Iraq in “Written on the Forehead”.
In contrast to her previous album, 2007’s White Chalk, this is much more direct. Whereas White Chalk was lyrically opaque and musically ethereal and piano led, in Let England Shake Harvey has returned to a more rocky if subdued style which searches for a sense of community in the directness of the songs’ melodies.
Harvey is striving for a sense of lost collective identity, a sense of an open and tolerant Englishness, that she feels has been lost. This is carried in a second lyrical theme through the album (and one started on White Chalk) of English identity. In “The Glorious Land” she explores the warping nature of military conflict on the way the way a nation views itself, and in “England” the ultimately illusory grasping for such national identity.
The result is only partially successful. The album is carried in the end by Harvey’s musical restlessness. There are atmospheric use of autoharp and dark musical shades that carry her message well. But lyrically the album falls short of its ambition, serving up too little beyond a “war is hell” message.