PJ Harvey - Let England Shake Review

One of PJ Harvey’s greatest confessed fears is repeating herself. Over her twenty-plus year career, she has provoked and challenged her listeners in numerous ways, chief among them her unwillingness to meet any of them halfway or match expectations. While there was certainly connective tissue between her first two albums (the raw, intense Dry and the rawer, intense-r Rid of Me), the engineering and instrumentation style differed sharply enough to define each by their packages. Everything since has veered wildly in unpredictable directions, touching on blues, pop, folk, jazz, industrial, piano balladry and more; she even matched the stylistic departures through her own appearance, which shifted dramatically for each album release.

It’s both natural and unfortunate that I would predictably latch onto the unpolished ferocity of her early records; it was my first taste, which is where unconscious defining begins, and it would have proved to be an easier entryway for me than had I begun with the manipulated landscapes of Is This Desire? or the experimental piano folk rock of White Chalk. That Harvey would surprise but never irrevocably disappoint has always been one of her most impressive traits. Yet when I discovered that her eighth album Let England Shake was going to focus on the Great War (better known today as World War I), I thought this must be a return of her rasp and snarl, confrontational tactics and aggressive, furrowing productions. Speaking for her American fans, we’re too far past the cynicism bred by Vietnam and the forty years of ugliness since to still be swept up in romanticizing war, so if Harvey could get memorably furious about being forced to wear a “filthy tight” dress, she’s gotta have it in her to rage against the (war) machine.

After all, World War I was one of the, well, let’s be frank—stupidest damn wars ever fought on such a large scale. Not just the motivation, mind, but the strategy and toll of trench warfare (though I won’t dull you with a rant on that), one that wiped out nearly an entire generation of European men. It also tore apart the French countryside, left a gaping hole in Germany that would be filled by the Nazi party, and actually nudged the US towards a pacifistic, foreign-neutral stance (can you imagine that today?). But this is a PJ Harvey record, and if the album title and several of the song names didn’t give it away, Let England Shake is about the effect the Great War had on her homeland of Britannia.

It’s not a dry recitation of historical documents or a collection of folksy laments or seething anti-war screeds. There are few concrete references to post-war desolation, the steep decline of British colonialism or the economic windfall; in fact, the album is defiantly apolitical, focusing instead on the personal devastation, both intimate and universal. It’s distinctively English in tone and narrative, but there are no overt references to British folk or blues, and hardly any nods to Davies-esque music hall, Zombies-esque baroque pop or Bowie-esque cabaret. Its musical diversity is readily apparent—“On Battleship Hill” has a jangling guitar strum tinged with island breeze and Spanish guitar-style vibrations from a zither, which sits next to the freak folk of “England,” with a rusty violin and paranoid Mellotron—but even though poetry and reminiscences of the injustice, horrors and experiences on both the battlefield and homefront are pretty old hat by now, it’s the words that usually linger longest.

Let England Shake is as despairing and unsettling as any work she has previously released, and because of context, seems guaranteed to affect greater than “I wanna bathe in milk, eat grapes, Robert De Niro sit on my face.” Naturally, the record is overloaded with grisly, haunting combat imagery—“I've seen and done things I want to forget; I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief. Arms and legs were in the trees.” (“The Words That Maketh Murder”); “How is our glorious country ploughed? Not by iron ploughs. Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet: feet marching.” (“The Glorious Land”). “Death was in the ancient fortress,” she sings on “All and Everyone” while a guitar quivers nervously behind her, “shelled by a million bullets.” And she strikes at the terrible sorrow of conflict as well, like on “On Battleship Hill” when she describes, “Jagged mountains, jutting out, cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth. On Battleship Hill I hear the wind say, ‘Cruel nature has won again’.” During “Bitter Branches” she even details the cinematic chestnut of farewells to young men shipped off to fight with sadness like a spectre: “Their young wives with white hands wave goodbye, their arms as bitter branches spreading into the world.”

Even Harvey’s voice—typically a gritty, defiant, yearning thing, roiling and shoveling in a gravely scratch, compulsively direct, ready to burrow or wail at a heartbeat—surprises on its own terms. More of an obeisance than a growl, she gravitates towards the ghostly falsetto of Chalk, soaked in echo and muddied like black ink dribbled onto a watercolor canvas depicting the “grey, damp filthiness of ages.” The wraithlike quality is fitting considering the lament of the dead at stake, but greater emotional impact may have been delivered had she found a few more opportunities to rumble throatily or belt it out with fearsome gusto—too much mist tends to make the full-scale affair a bit drab during a couple of stretches, particularly the always-difficult third quadrant.

Polly Jean has never been an artist to settle on one temperament, though—one of things that makes her so appealing is eclecticism that can resemble natural mood swings. Whether or not England would have benefited from a hooky pop song or a tough hard rocker is debatable (and I lean towards the negative), but the framing of the wintry folk and pastoral rock allows for amusing but well-integrated diversions. The strains of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” on a xylophone can be heard tickling the titular opener (though in its setting, it sounds closer to that song’s inspiration, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” than the number made famous by both the Four Lads and They Might Be Giants). She also borrows from Eddie Cochran on “The Words That Maketh Murder” when she repeatedly asks near the end, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” Second single “The Glorious Land” incorporates the bugle cavalry charge reveille. Even her direct references to memories and events don’t dwell on specifics, allowing freedom of principle and theme, though the famed battle at Gallipoli is prodded more than once. But she also finds opportunities to twist (mostly cheery) clichés into darkened dispatches: “Smile, smile Bobby, with your lovely mouth,” she sings on the leadoff before souring in a flash when continuing, “Pack up your troubles, let's head out to the fountain of death.” And though she illustrates, “In the battered waste ground, hear the guns firing,” on “Hanging in the Wire,” the melody is subdued through an eerily elegant piano figure that would never make one think of such calamitous noise.

Though England presents the same disadvantage as Uh Huh Her and White Chalk, the two most obstinate albums in her career—lacking the feral intensity of Rid of Meand the dynamic pop songcraft of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, it neither startles nor attracts on that first listen—it blossoms quickly on revisits. The music is mixed with dampened echo, giving it both a rustic, paeanic quality and a foggy distance that reflects of its antiquity. The distance aspect is critical in technique—four producers are credited (the three chief musicians John Parish, Mick Harvey and Polly Jean herself, as well as frequent PJ collaborator Flood), and their efforts as technicians and mixers are as important to the overall effect as anything written, sung or played. The sound undulates in intensity and volume; autoharps, pianos and organs toil against the horizon while guitars march through the midground and a trombone or harmoica or martial drumbeat will poke up close. Even Harvey’s vocals will resonate in the frieze for a long spell with equally muffled, chattering backups (mostly Jean-Marc Butty) before suddenly snapping into focus and lunging for the listener’s ears. They’re brave techniques for an album of such bold statements, but they don’t result in an in-your-face encounter (which would have been the undemanding method). In succeeding, it creates the sensation as expressed by its prevailing theme—chilling, and unforgettably so. 

"Let England Shake" is on sale February 14, 2011 from Island.

Matt Medlock


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