Album Review: PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Even at this stage, almost 20 years after her striking debut album Dry, PJ Harvey is a prime example of an artist who refuses to stand still, constantly evolving from album to album. Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea may have seen her flirt briefly with the mainstream, but her output since has been evasive and uncompromising, from the dark, twisted ruminations of Uh Huh Her to the sparse, haunting White Chalk. Let England Shake has been in the works for quite some time, the album written over a period of almost three years. Taking much inspiration from war literature, Salvador Dali and Francisco Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’, it’s a deeply complex piece of work that takes in not just the horrors of war but England’s history of colonialism and the pull of patriotism.
Musically, it’s another about-turn, the most notable elements being Harvey’s use of the autoharp and frequent brass flourishes. Elements of previous solo album White Chalk remain, such as her eerie high-register vocals (particularly on ‘England’), while the unpredictable folk-tinged arrangements of her 2009 collaboration with John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By, aren’t a million miles away from the instrumental palette here. The opening title track sets out her stall: “The west’s asleep/Let England shake/weighted down with silent dead/I fear our blood won’t rise again” she sings in an unsettlingly detached manner over a xylophone melody borrowed from The Four Lads’ ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’. That’s followed by ‘The Last Living Rose’, which is almost classic Harvey (if such a thing exists), her voice returning to its earthier natural register while the guitar-led, brass-inflected arrangement kicks and swings.
White Chalk was daring enough in its subject matter (dealing graphically with abortion among other things) but Let England Shake is on a whole different level. Couplets like “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget/I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees” are made all the more disquieting by the almost playground-chant vibe of ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, which ends with the blackly humorous pay-off line “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” ‘Hanging In The Wire’, meanwhile, is one of the most poignant, stunning compositions of her career, featuring harrowing images like “Walker’s in the wire, limbs point upwards/There are no birds singing, the white cliffs of Dover/There are no trees to sing from” over a serene and sparse piano backdrop.
Is it her finest hour, as some have claimed? Not for my money. The attention to detail and complex, ambiguous themes that characterise Let England Shake mark it out as a formidable work, no question. However, the quote that kept springing to my mind was the Manic Street Preachers one about The Holy Bible and how it was (I’m paraphrasing very loosely here) “a great album to have in your collection, but not the kind you’d take out and listen to that often”. Lyrically and thematically, this is probably a 10/10, but the music doesn’t always match up – which mightn’t be too much of a surprise when you consider just how long Harvey spent working on the lyrics. However, that’s taking nothing away from a great album that’s bound to be pored over and written about for some time.