15. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

The horror. The horror.

Some of our greatest writers, from Wilfred Owen to Sebastian Faulks, have been describing the horrors of war for more than a century. Many artists, most notably Otto Dix and Picasso have painted vivid portrayals of the carnage of the battlefield. None however have ever set their gory narrative against such a jaunty, skiffle-folk infused background. Tunes like The Words That Maketh Murder sound downright jolly. Until you listen to the words.

That dichotomy is stressed further in the aforementioned The Words That Maketh Murder when it’s closing bars switch effortlessly into a cover of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues – a throwaway pop tune from the 1950’s (albeit a very good one). There’s another twist. The lyrics of Summertime Blues advise that the narrator intends to take their problem to the United Nations. Who better to sort out brutal conflict on a global scale?

There’s lots of that going on in Let England Shake. At its core, it shocks and sends you reeling. But you still can’t help tapping your toes to the beat.

Another reason why I love this album so much is down to the perspective of Harvey. Throughout, she takes on the role of impassioned observer, like one of the crows on the album’s cover, soaring over battlefields and simply serving to report back on what she sees. Emotionless and factual.

Then, of course, we have Harvey – one of the finest voices of a generation. Like her themes, her voice has matured and developed wonderfully over the years and her innovative use of traditional instruments including zithers and autoharps make her one of the most interesting artists on the planet. Special mention too for key collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey who are, as always, superbly supportive of the overall feel of the songs.

So, it’s an astonishing listen on so many levels. It deservedly won the Mercury Prize in 2011 and it would be criminal to overlook this seminal work on any compilation of the decade.

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