Like many teenagers brought up mercifully far from when and where war is first-hand experience, I binged on war films and books in my late teens and early twenties. One of my favourite war documentaries is Ken Burns’s history of the American Civil War. Over its 10+ hours, it displays impressive balance and magisterial sadness in covering the first industrial war, featuring interviews, a wealth of documents and loads of brilliant, spooky pictures. Before paper prints replaced them with a cruder, though more replicable process, Daguerreotype dominated. Using glass, it was how the portraits of Union and Confederate soldiers, citizen and soldiers were made. Daguerreotype is a poetic process – it’s almost supernaturally sharp, yet had a tendency to blur motion. Subjects are captured with startling personality, yet are locked in time.
In a lot of ways, it’s the visual equivalent of ‘Let England Shake’. First, let’s talk about the production. It has a startling lucidity, yet runs with an uncomfortable vastness. The melodies are some of the prettiest that PJ Harvey has ever written, yet it’s far from an easy listen – filled with a curious dustiness, drum skitters jab dreadfully, guitar lines drag thirstily, samples come and go jarring and the booms come from nowhere. It’s tempting to compare the papery quality of the sound with the months of research apparently involved in ‘Let England Shake’.
The parts of the song often sound like they are working independently, with PJ’s voice often shouting over her melodies. Tim Hecker, Steve Reich and The Caretaker have all taken similar aesthetic choices to confront the past this year, and ‘Let England Shake’ is closer in sound and intent to these leading lights of the avant garde than anyone else in her bracket. From the peculiar shonkiness of sound and historical weight, it sounds like the output of labels like Tompkins Square or the archival work of Honest Jon’s, yet no one has made music as strange, as poetic, as ambivalent and as clever as this this year.
And more than any other album this year, it proves a new thing that pop music can do. As she mused to the Guardian, war is the subject of many films, poetry and books, but very rarely pop music, least of all from a major artist. It’s not hard to think why – pop is, at its heart, about new and fun ways of documenting the richness and hardness of life. How can you use this to capture the wholesale taking of it? A rare seriousness is required. It’s not something to fluff. But the thing that’s so masterful about the album is its ambivalence. Like most northern Europeans brought up during the unusually quiet half of the 20th century, her experience of war is second-hand, limited to reports of foreign lands and memories of old men.
These are dreadful enough, of course: she reports a hateful feeling still lingering on the hill where many, many ANZAC troops died in Turkey, and there are many, many lyrics too visceral to think on, from soldiers dropping like lumps of meat to the sight of arms and legs in trees. Yet this distance lets her document this cruel constant of human life from afar, horrified that we do this, yet bitterly aware that war is part of cruel, cruel nature. War, for PJ Harvey, is what we do. To say “Hiroshima cannot be pardoned” as Joni Mitchell once sang, or ask people to put down their guns is desperate, and futile. It’s what we’ve also done, and continue to do. We put people in dark forests to put bits of metal in each other. We build things that put the legs of 20-year-olds in trees, and to write “…and this is a bad thing” is flippant. This is an impressionistic album, delivered with dreadful clarity. To tell the story of Sparta, of Hellmand, of Gallipoli without triteness is impressive enough. To add to our understanding of this awful thing we do is outstanding. To do so on a pop album is a something else.