Classic album du jour: PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake”

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With the centennial of the “Great War” upon us, I can’t resist recommending an extraordinary album on the subject that you may have missed when it came out in 2011.  Am I falling for the “especially relevant for our time” meme I attempted to debunk in my last post?  Not really.  I thought the album was terrific three years ago, and I probably will continue to think so for many years hence.

The artist, 43-year old English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, first came to international attention 20 years ago with a series of bluesy, hard-hitting albums strong on sexual energy.  Sample lyric: “Lick my legs!  I’m on fire!”  She’s been less prolific in the past decade, releasing only two solo albums.  But what a great pair of albums they are:  2007’s intimate, ghost-haunted, blood-curdling “White Chalk,” and the 2011 album in question, “Let England Shake.”

There’s nothing novel about a rock musician addressing the topic of war, usually to amaze us with the revelation that war is bad and that we shouldn’t do it.  But rare is the rock musician, or musician of any genre, who reports and reflects on the destructiveness of war with the keen, dispassionate intelligence of PJ Harvey on “Let England Shake.”

Whether it’s the soldiers’ wives, with white hands waving goodbye, or the same soldiers falling like hunks of meat, or the ghosts of the dead soldiers hanging in the wire, Harvey’s vision is unfancy, unsentimental, unsparing.  She neither flatters her audience’s sensibilities nor insults her audience’s intelligence by assuming a morally superior anti-war stance — as if any sane person doesn’t abhor war.  And her music is many times more effective and affecting for it.

For musical complexity, frankly, “Let England Shake” is not exactly Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” the greatest classical masterwork on the subject.  But it rocks, crisply and catchily (have I just coined a word?).  PJ Harvey’s keening soprano contrasts nicely with the dour baritone of Mick Harvey (no relation, apparently) over a light, natural-sounding backup of guitars, keyboard and drums (accent on the bass drum).  That’s all you get, and that’s all you need.  Can a simple, even slightly primitive rock album be considered a work of art?  You listen and tell me.

P.S.  Bonus points if you recognize the old pop novelty song whose melody is aptly appropriated (with full credit in the booklet) at the beginning of the first track.

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