PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

written by: March 2, 2011
PJ Harvey Let England Shake Album Cover Release Date: February 14, 2011


PJ Harvey does not do trends. This is why she’s singing about war in 2011 instead of 2004. And while a new crop of artists remain focused on the summer sun of youth, she’s got her mind on the storm ahead, whether in the form of World War IV, the apocalypse or a perfect pairing of the two.

She does do detours, however, and while Let England Shake is a bona fide PJ Harvey album, it’s got a distinct side-project feel: collaborative, sure, but also distant and detached, like Mother Nature letting the wind tell a story. It is not the pissy, feverish diary Uh–Huh Her was, nor even welcome to sit next to its closest relative, the personal theater of Is This Desire?

While she’s entering her third decade as a singer, Polly Jean Harvey actually appears to be aging in reverse.

She sounded positively feral on Rid of Me and hot vinegar one-offs like “One Time Too Many,” would have you think a war-themed album would be her frothiest yet, but the reality is she has never sounded more childlike. There’s not a single angry moment here, likely because she doesn’t sound like she is here – she’s somewhere else entirely. It is typical for Harvey to buck expectations: who among fans experienced enough to hear Dry upon release would imagine her gently cooing her words (as on the cradle-will-rock title cut)?

Two songs include “England” in the title, but that’s just the beginning. Let England Shake is a very British album in terms of the images it evokes:  ominous rain, steel black gates guarding a widow’s home, perpetual late winter cloudiness with everything in white and gray. It’s not so much an album about war as it is about the aftermath; a shell-shocked Harvey sounds rattled and, yes, shaken, but somehow not confused. She is stronger for what she’s discovered.

She doesn’t go for shock value (hence no lines about “chicken liver balls”), but that doesn’t mean the vivid imagery is AWOL. Witness the spooky flashback “The Words That Maketh Murder,” where she laconically recalls “I seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees.” If Harvey was trying to resurrect merry old England through merry old soldier songs, she succeeded. The album’s couplets are simple, perhaps too much so: “Death was everywhere/In the air, and in the sounds”, “Death was in the staring sun/fixing its eyes on everyone.”

This isn’t what we’ve come to expect from the queenie who wrote “Rid of Me” and “Down by the Water,” which excelled because of suggestion, not plain-spoken observation.

Musically, England isn’t so solid, either. It opens with falling-snow cymbals, but the pretty, ethereal quality wears off quickly, and Harvey seems to have made an unusual effort to curb it. She’s picked up a taste for throwing out-of-place, “found” sounds into calm musical settings (the offbeat call to arms trumpet puncturing the dream pop haze of “The Glorious Land” being the most irritating example, sounding like some dick’s phone going off in a movie theater). “The Words That Maketh Murder” is a tepid jaunt in the form of an Indian campfire dance, and that’s before she quotes “Summertime Blues.”

There are bright spots: “The Last Living Rose” has a loping, ’60s melody that Stevie Nicks might have heard through her AM radio as a schoolgirl, and the band occasionally comes down to earthier ground (“On Battleship Hill,” “The Colour of the Earth,” the latter led by non-relative and Nick Cave pal Mick Harvey). Mostly though, Let England Shake sounds like a sheltered, bookish teen’s version of a pop album (and not in the good Belle & Sebastian way). It’s all so formal and scholarly, with sing-alongs like church hymns or chants from old movies standing in for choruses and bizarre little bursts that fill the places the kid thinks need a pickup.

If one wants to get a message across, they can’t argue with John Lennon, who said the best way is to sugarcoat it. However, Let England Shake comes glazed with other things as well: gun powder, yellowed paper, blood and charred shrapnel. Consider this one, then, the cure for the desensitized; if Let England Shake can annoy, at least it breaks the skin.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake tracklist

  1. “Let England Shake”
  2. “The Last Living Rose”
  3. “The Glorious Land”
  4. “The Words That Maketh Murder”
  5. “All and Everyone”
  6. “On Battleship Hill”
  7. “England”
  8. “In the Dark Places”
  9. “Bitter Branches”
  10. “Hanging in the Wire”
  11. “Written on the Forehead”
  12. “The Colour of the Earth”