Let England Shake by PJ Harvey – Music Review
Being a PJ Harvey album, any assessment from this humble reviewer is always going to have a “Holy Crap! That’s Awesome!” element in it somewhere. The woman hits even when she misses. That said, a PJ Harvey miss an extraordinarily rare occurrence and more a matter of listener taste than any fault of hers. Let England Shake hits and does so with the extraordinary artistry and delicate force, almost violence that PJ Harvey has cultivated as her very own type of perfection.
Let England Shake is an anthem to her country, more specifically an anthem to her country at war. It’s an ambiguous title that meshes well with the complexity of its lyrics and its subject. Let England Shake. Is that a tremble? Under the drums and boots of war? Is it a shake of might? A shake of terror? All of the above?
The title track kicks of the album, comes rolling in with Harvey’s high range vocal sweeps through, teasing out this plinky, almost poppy track that is backed with an sense of almost restrained rock, the contrasting darkness of the subject – a country “weighted down with silent dead.” In Track 2, ‘The Last Living Rose’, gritty cities, stinking alleys, graveyards and dead sea captains mix with the rolling fogs, the golden Thames – “take me back to beautiful England”, a lament that seems both ironic and literal as the gruesome and the beautiful combine, amidst the slow labouring of muted guitars.
‘The Glorious Land’ is for my money the finest moment on the album.
The Glorious Land
Opening with a rhythmic fullness as a deep and dirty bass rolls around with a bugle. PJ launches into a dynamic call and response type of refrain on top of it, the bugle’s call to arms sounding all the way through as she asks “How is our glorious country ploughed? Not by iron ploughs. Our lands is ploughed by tanks and feet, Feet. Marching.” The core of Let England Shake and its comments on war is in this song. We hear: “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” and a response in a disturbing sing song chorus of kids, “Its fruit is deformed children….Its fruit is orphaned children.” Again, we never get to break into full rock mode, feeling held back as these big sounds roll right on over us. For many listens, the bugle call bothered me. It disrupts the perfect wave of the rhythm guitar, it jars and dislocates, it’s a barrier jammed into the music. I haven’t read any comment from Harvey on this song so I can only speculate, but it seems that’s exactly what it’s meant to be.
Let England Shake continues as a whole in this rhythmic low gear yet high impact rock, lyrically almost sounding like a love hate lament to not just her nation but the world at large. We never get into the ethereal sparseness that was White Chalk (2007), we never push into the highly polished accessible rock of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000) but we wander between them both. I continue to marvel at the application of Harvey’s vocal ranges, how she can sing with such girlish innocence, and then with deep, brooding melancholy, with anger, with brutal hysterics and ghostly calm. Listen to the jarring ‘England’ and it’s all there in the one track, and then straight back into the solid, accessible rock one might think of as the PJ Harvey of old in the following ‘Bitter Branches.’
The album closes with a traditional folk ballad in ‘The Colour of the Earth.’ Here, long time Harvey collaborator John Parish takes lead vocals to tell a tale of The Battle of the Nek. Nek was a disastrous WWI engagement fought as part of the Gallipoli campaign. Some 400 Australian troops, the Australian 3rd Lighthorse, were killed in the futile attack, and no British soldiers. It’s an interesting choice of topic for the album, perhaps a comment on the arm of the Commonwealth, that England’s bloody history, England’s shake if you will, is not only confined to the tiny green island in the North.
Let England Shake is an album that can be thoroughly enjoyed on an audio level alone, but I think any listener will be hard pressed not to feel the lyrics and themes creep into them like a possession. I’m not convinced this is simply an anti-war album, but perhaps more of an observation of history. Yes, war is a brutal bloody, unnecessary thing, but our nations are inexorably shaped in it and by it.
The Harvey entourage has been at it for a good long while, getting better and better with every year. With every new album I’m convinced I’m hearing PJ Harvey perfected, and again with this one. Let England Shake has PJ Harvey once again pulling out at a new top level in an entirely new game, one entirely of her own devising.
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