PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake



Whereas 2007’s White Chalk featured Polly Jean Harvey quietly ruminating on a set of haunting, piano-based ballads, 2011’s Let England Shake is an impassioned rallying cry, bursting forth with ideas and a sense of purpose. Similar to Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, this record is directly inspired by a place—England, if you haven’t figured by the title—but as you might have expected, this isn’t some Cool Britannia-era celebration of queen and country. Harvey may describe England as beautiful on “The Last Living Rose,” but when she follows it up with “Let me walk through the stinking alleys to the music of drunken beatings,” her motives become a bit less clear. Most of all, though, she uses her homeland’s rich military history (often from World War I) to tell stories of death and war. “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” Harvey asks on the call-and-response rally “The Glorious Land.” “The fruit is deformed children,” she hears back. Let England Shake isn’t a fiery anti-war polemic, though. Instead, it addresses its subject in equal parts poem and matter-of-fact narrative, recognizing the sacrifices of soldiers without glamorizing the battles in which they fought. Take for instance “The Colour Of The Earth,” which describes the death of a soldier from a friend’s point of view. It’s so simple and true, that it sounds like an old standard.

It’s grim stuff, to be sure, but the record avoids easy doom-and-gloom, going for a sound that’s as nuanced and diverse as the words. Bouncing xylophones score Harvey’s tale of swimming in the “fountain of death” on the title track; wartime bugles call out on “The Glorious Land,” and even a sample of reggae giant Niney the Observer haunts “Written On The Forehead.” Harvey doesn’t completely betray the tough simplicity of her older work, though: “In The Dark Places” and especially the rough-and-tumble “Bitter Branches” provide some contrast from the album’s softer moments. But even at the record’s fiercest and most eclectic, there’s always a dreary, battle-worn murk that unites the album and give the songs the proper tone. Perhaps just as important, Harvey still sings in the atypically high register she did on White Chalk, and it serves the music well, allowing for some charming duet and chants with male vocalists on songs like “The Colour Of The Earth” and the gorgeous ballad “Hanging In The Wire.” Incredibly well-crafted and executed, Let England Shake stands as one of the best records of 2011 and a peak in PJ Harvey’s distinguished career.

Posted on January 8, 2012, in PJ Harvey. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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