PJ HARVEY Let England Shake (Island)
I have little doubt that this eighth album of English songstress PJ Harvey will be a guaranteed fixture in a multitude of year end best of lists. Conceptually, Let England Shake will already trump many of its competitors for the right to be so revered. As the album title hints, the songs here focus on Harvey’s commentary about her homeland. And it makes for depressing reading for sure. Think of Roger Water’s diatribes (that he tried to pass as rock songs) in Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut and you will have a good idea of what Harvey is trying to accomplish on Let England Shake.
Musically, Harvey (along with collaborators John Parrish and Mick Harvey – no relation) has crafted a pulsating record built out of the rhythmic foundations of Harvey’s edgy guitar. With a clean, shiny guitar sound and strident percussion, Harvey delivers a hypnotic soundscape even before a single note is sung or lyric heard. Hearkening back wistfully to early 80s post-punk, there is ample evidence of the influence of Gang of Four, Wire, XTC, Television and Talking Heads on Harvey’s sonic agenda.
But it is in the lyrics that Harvey has set out her stall. Having written out the song lyrics as standalone poetry even before any music was written, the words stand out effectively to express Harvey’s observations concerning the socio-polictical situation in England. Harvey writes about how England’s position in the world continues to decline in the title track – “England’s dancing days are done” and in The Last Living Rose – “Take me back to England & the grey, damp filthiness of ages, fog rolling down behind the mountains & on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains”.
Also prominent in Harvey’s thoughts is England’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. “And what is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is orphaned children” (The Glorious Land), “I have seen and done things I want to forget; soldiers fell like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief, arms and legs were in the trees” (The Words That Maketh Murder) and “He turned to me, then surveyed the scene, said, ‘war is here in our beloved city’”. (Written On The Forehead)
And if all the above was not enough, Harvey has artfully chosen to sing these heavy words with an affected inflection which gives the weighty songs an other-worldly feel. This is most arresting on Battleship Hill, with its olde English ambience and the disturbing England, with its incongruent Arabic references.
Anyway you choose to look at it, Let England Shake is a minor masterpiece that deserves to be listened to (and appreciated) over and again. An important milestone in the career of an intriguing artist.
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