The blood and guts on Let England Shake mostly belong to soldiers; they get splattered around several fronts, but not in the form of heavy music. One of the great things about this album is that its subject matter—a nation, its land, its people, its folk traditions, and its wars, from 1914 straight through tomorrow morning in Iraq—rewards a little mystery. Harvey wrote the lyrics first, then complicated things with her singing. She conjures images of battlefields and violent death and love of country, but it’s wonderfully hard to tell whom she’s speaking for, and when, and where she’s being angry, or sardonic, or just baffled. The cheeriest song here is “The Last Living Rose,” and it sounds like a homecoming soldier’s paean to a damp, drunk, violent England; it also feels awfully fond. (On this album, England is pronounced nostalgically, with three syllables and a phantom r: “En-gerland.”) Another tune uses a folk-song call-and-response to ask what the glorious nation’s soil is plowed with (tanks and marching feet!) and what fruit it bears (orphaned children!)—but the next one ends with her asking, in a wry American rock-and-roll voice, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”
You hesitate to call that arch. It might also be tacky to call it playful—the song is, after all, titled “The Words That Maketh Murder,” and it contains images of blown-up soldiers’ limbs hanging from the branches of trees. There’s nothing funny here to call gallows humor. But Harvey’s approach to a subject so large might actually be a fitting case of, say, “gallows ambiguity”: a light touch that leaves things with exactly the right amount of weird opacity and mixed feelings. That murder tune is actually something you can shimmy and twist to, and if there’s not a kind of mordant wit to that, then I don’t know what to say.