PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Let England Shake, eighth studio album by PJ Harvey, is steeped in death, and the fragmented disjointed feelings of loss and despair that it can bring. Death from war, from murder, devastation, deprivation, isolation. Yet it is a beautiful album, like the paintings of Dali, Picasso, Goya, artists who depicted such horrors in rich vivid shapes and colours. As Harvey sings in 'All and Everyone', "death was everywhere", and no one can sing about death so beautifully as she can.
Let England Shake is an ode to England and the idyllic Dorset countryside of Harvey's youth. This is an England ravaged by war, a country littered with forgotten citizens left to fall through the cracks by the ambitions of an industrialised nation. In 'The Last Living Rose' Harvey describes a sad and decaying country with "the Thames River, glistening like gold hastily sold for nothing." There are songs of love and regret, the minimalist arrangements reinforcing the impact of Harvey's remarkable songwriting. The deceptively jaunty 'This Glorious Land' is a scathing attack on two warmongering superpowers, the sound of a bugle weaving in and out of the haunting melody feels like a fox fleeing from the hounds: "How is our glorious country ploughed? / Not by iron ploughs/ Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet marching".
The songs are sung not in Harvey's customary deep, rich voice but in a soft soprano, at times almost falsetto, adding a fragility and vulnerability to the powerful lyrical imagery. The enigmatic 'On Battleship Hill' begins with a rolling upbeat melody, like a dance about to begin. Then the music fades and Harvey's exquisite voice drifts in, trance-like and haunted: "The sent of thyme carried on the wind / Stings your face into remembering / That nature has won again." In 'The Words That Maketh Murder' the voice is strident, mocking, the auto harp adding a breath of innocence to the song's brutal imagery. A throaty saxophone and punchy percussion give the melody a swaying beat that would threaten to have you dancing were it not for the subject matter. If all protest songs were as funky as this we'd finally win the fight.
In the ballad 'England' Harvey sings in a hoarse, wounded voice to a land she both loves and hates, accompanied only by guitar and scratchy violin with her over-dubbed vocal shadowing her like a ghostly spectre. The music that eventually joins in sounds like a broken music box, giving the song a disjointed, disoriented feel: "I live and die through England / It leaves a taste/ A bitter one." 'In Dark Places' and 'Bitter Branches' go back to Harvey's rockier roots, the electric guitar making a reappearance. The arrangements are fuller and richer as if the ethereal Harvey from the earlier part of the album has finally touched back down on earth. Final song 'The Colour of the Earth' sees Harvey's collaborators, Jean-Marc Butty, Mick Harvey and the ubiquitous John Parish, step forward. Though their presence is felt throughout, here they take a more prominent role sharing lead vocals with Harvey. Their rough male voices seems almost intrusive in contrast to Harvey's innocent child-like lilt, as if we would like Harvey, our Sibyl, all to ourselves.
With this album Harvey has delivered her finest, most beautiful and fully realized album since 2000's Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. Let England Shake is an homage, a love song, a lament and a prayer for a country that has lost her way.