I have to admit I never thought I'd find myself selecting an album of the year that had not only received a similar accolade from journalists at Uncut and Mojo, but was also the current holder of the Mercury Prize. But then this is an extraordinary album, with extraordinary powers of appeal. PJ Harvey has already well and truly rammed down my throat my words about her 'Dry' album a little under twenty years ago, which I praised to the hilt but felt this was an artist who would struggle to replicate this kind of form. Since then, Polly Jean has produced numerous masterpieces and even those generally deemed unworthy of that epithet (Uh Huh Her, perhaps, or White Chalk) have had an undeniable quality about them that still made them stand out from everything else. But Let England Shake is something else altogether.
We can stop and ponder why so few other western artists, living in such times, have produced anything on the subject of war. Even if they had, it's doubtful anything it would have been anything like this. It's album that can thrill unremitting lefties and peaceniks like yours truly and yet been praised within the armed forces for its veracity, power or imagery and sheer truthfulness. If Hegel's right, and all our disputes form an unrelenting chain towards synthesis, then maybe this is what that synthesis might look like - a piece of art of such defiant honesty and intelligence that even those on all sides of the conflict can unite around its brilliance.
The lyrics of Let England Shake contain some of the richest imagery heard on record for years, ranging from visceral battlefield depictions where 'soldiers fall like lumps of meat' to the almost unfeasible delicacy of 'The last living rose/Quivers'. Alongside these are devastating delineations of the current western psyche that are most powerful when astonishingly simple, most notably in the opening words of the title track: 'The west's asleep/Let England shake' come as close to summarising our national malaise as six words ever will.