They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
I didn’t get Let England Shake at first. PJ Harvey was singing in an unusual register. The instrumentation (autoharp, parping saxophones, minimal arrangements) sounded awkward, I couldn’t make sense of the lyrics. There was violence and sadness within the words. But I couldn’t pin down what they were about, what they meant.
Still, I persisted. I put the CD on, one dark cold night, driving out to a hospital to visit my ailing mother. And, as the windscreen wipers lulled me into that state that comes with driving at night, I heard these lyrics:
Death was everywhere,
in the air
and in the sounds
coming off the mounds
of Bolton’s Ridge.
“Bolton’s Ridge.” I remembered that name. Gallipoli.
I remembered reading about it while reading of the Gallipoli Campaign, the bloody military disaster that forms so much a part of the national identity of both New Zealand and Australia.
With that awareness, I skipped the album back to the start, and it all became clear. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is an album about war. Drawing from the First World War, with many songs directly speaking about the Gallipoli Campaign, but speaking broader, about what war does to men and countries. A horrific album, with the minimalist arrangements laying bare lyrics full of dismembered bodies and bloodied earth.
Even now, as I listen to the album, it is like a bucket of cold water to the face. Harvey keens in an unusual register, singing of men dying under a harsh sun, of how man’s murder of each other scars the earth long after the battles have ended.
On Battleship Hill’s caved in trenches,
a hateful feeling still lingers,
even now, 80 years later.
Cruel, cruel nature.
The cruellest, blackest moment, the album’s shocking heart comes at the end of the lead single, ‘The Words That Maketh Murder.’ “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget,” Harvey sings, “soldiers fell like lumps of meat.” She paints a picture of bloody horror, of rotting flesh quivering in the heat, of swarming flies and the stench of death. Of the horror, the absolute horror of war.
And then she springs perhaps the blackest musical joke I’ve ever heard, as the song turns and concludes with the refrain from Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’.
What if I took my problem to the United Nations?
A feel-good summery tune we all sung along with during some golden childhood turned into a bleak, pathetic appeal to an authority that has no ability to stop the slaughter we inflict on each other. Futile. Awful.
Never again. Lest we forget.
– ANZAC Day, 2014.