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PJ Harvey

Let England Shake

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Label: Vagrant

It’s been damn near 20 years since PJ Harvey arrived with the fierce Dry, as intimidating and enlivening of a debut album as anyone could hope for. She offered scorching vocals over a spectacularly gloomy clamor, conjuring up menace as easily as a black cat flicks its tail. Potent as that was, Harvey didn’t allow herself to be defined by her primal wails and scathing sensibility. She’s consistently pushed herself in different directions as an artist, infusing every new album with a sense of rediscovery.

From its opening notes, delivered on a xylophone with a curiously jaunty gait, Let England Shake promises to be quite unlike anything Harvey has done before. The first track and title cut begins a rumination on the state of her native land, delivering the quick obituary: “England’s dancing days are done.” It’s a country burdened by the ghosts of its own bloody history, an endless pageant of war and callously discarded soldiers that continues to this day. Harvey’s preoccupation with the grinding tragedy of it all shades the entire album.

It is a whole, bracing piece, fully unified in theme and thought. Track to track, the heaviness of a brutal world encroaches into Harvey’s songwriting. It recalls the brand of rock opera that Pete Townshend was forever noodling with, moving with its own ebb and flow that feels like the stuff of drama laid out and recaptured in melodic waves. There’s no through line to the work–no recurring characters or overarching narrative to drape the songs upon–but there is an intellectual consistency that lends it the rewards of a novel without borrowing any of its machinery.

It’s hard to conceive of a song like “England” working all that well on its own, nestled into the playlist of even the most adventurous radio station. It’s spare and lonely, dominated by Harvey singing minimalist lyrics in bendy, wobbling tones, accompanied by a sharply strummed guitar and odd, ethereal organ sounds buried in the mix. Right in the middle of the album, though, its anguished lament about a citizenry that “stagnate[s] with time/ Like water, like air,” holds a unique power, especially once Harvey confesses to “undaunted, never-failing love for you/ England” with the collapsing resignation of an codependent spouse.

That’s indicative of the startling directness of the album’s lyrics throughout. The song “In the Dark Places” describes a mission: “passed through/ The damned mountains/ Went hellwards/ And some of us returned/ And some of us did not.” It merges an almost reportorial plainness with a scorched poetry, accumulating to a literary bleakness. This continues right to the surprising sedate closing song, “The Colour Of the Earth,” largely sung by Harvey’s regular collaborator and former Bad Seed, Mick Harvey. If he’d adopted a Brummie accent, it could have been slipped onto the end of a Billy Bragg album without arousing much suspicion. That’s how devoted the song is to unfolding with unadorned, folk troubadour honesty.

Fittingly, given the stylistic shifts throughout, Harvey’s own singing is distinctly different on Let England Shake. She largely eschews the rich, soaring echoes of Patti Smith that have driven prior releases. Instead, there’s a little bit of the fragility that was present on White Chalk, released in 2007. That’s filled in with the sort of fulsome sweetness that Björk relies upon when she’s not whooping herself into a frenzy. There’s also a touch of Kate Bush’s airy wonderment, as if Harvey is pulling together all of the glorious eccentrics that are roughly her contemporaries into the choir of her own voice.

There may be no song that exemplifies Let England Shake better than “All And Everyone.” It moves with shifting tempos like a movie veering between the epic and the mournful. Harvey delivers lyrics robust with imagery–“Death was in the ancient fortress/ Shelled by a million bullets/ From gunners, waiting in the copses/ With hearts that threatened to pop their boxes“–with a probing fervor that’s also tinged with aching loss. Her strain to wrap her head around the incomprehensible gives the song a heartened surge. This is the questing urgency fomented into astonishing music, which is what PJ Harvey has always been able to do when operating at the peak of her considerable powers.

by Dan Seeger


Key Tracks: Let England Shake, In the Dark Places, All And Everyone

See Also: John Parish and PJ Harvey- A Woman a Man Walked By

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