PJ Harvey returns for a shakedown with her new album ‘Let England Shake’
By Heather Seidler
After two decades of salacious and blistering music-making, the enigmatic PJ Harvey proves again her power to reinvent and to exceed any musical classification. With her ninth studio album Let England Shake, set for release February 14, the beloved queen of alternative rock viscerally explores the volatile political climate and the vagaries of war, without treading into ‘protest song’ territory or sloganeering. Harvey’s preternatural ability to gracefully flutter between genres and tones is what keeps her work so relevant and revelatory.
Her first solo album in four years, Let England Shake instantly registers as a virile, pointed reaction to certain imperial and universal truths that plague her country along with the rest of the waking world. She has turned away from the world within to give us a peak of the island on which she lives. The resulting piece of work feels like the culmination of everything she’s been before, the glorious uncoiling of overwound springs.
Recorded live in a cliff-top church in her home country Dorset, England, with long-standing collaborators John Parish, Mick Harvey, and producer Flood, much of Let England Shake was recorded on autoharp, three autoharps in fact, all tuned slightly differently. Nearly effortless to strum, the autoharp’s simplicity liberates the songs rather suitably.
The title track debuted in the spring of 2010 on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, in front of the prime minister of the time, with Harvey crooning the pertinent lyrics “Weighted down with silent dead /England’s dancing days are done.” Over and over, Harvey marries lurid lyrics to unsinkable music, “I have seen and done things I want to forget / Seen soldiers fell like lumps of meat / Blown and shot-out beyond belief,” she chants without refrain in “The Words That Maketh Murder.” It’s easy to hum along, not fully realizing the horrors you’re inadvertently affirming.
Harvey’s harnessing of words and their searing terrain is what makes Let England Shake so uniquely remarkable without her usual old-fashioned fatalism. “I think a lot of my work has often been about the interior, the emotional, what happens inside oneself,” she says. “This time I’ve just been looking out, so it’s not only to do with taking a look at England, but taking a look at the world and what’s happening in the current day world affairs. But always trying to come from the human point of view because I don’t feel qualified to sing from a political standpoint.”
Like any truly extraordinary artist, in her own PJ Harveyesque way, she juxtaposes the grotesque and the beautiful and makes the darkness oddly brightened. It’s her skillful application of dichotomy that makes the album such a rewarding experience. “No matter where you are, people suffer great disappointments in what their governments are doing, or what wars are being waged in their name,” Harvey says. Although she is singing as an Englishwoman in England, she uses a language that coheres with any country, inhabiting both the role of observer and correspondent.
Interlacing World War I lyrics in ‘The Colour of the Earth’ with catchy, buoyant melodies is a testament to the fact that Harvey can, in the span of one song, evoke so many different emotions. With the usage of the lyric ‘cruel nature’ appearing throughout the album, it’s unclear whether she’s addressing the natural world, human nature, or the cruel nature that exists around us; it’s this ambiguity that thrusts the listener into their own subjective stance. In describing the writing process of the album, Harvey explained, “I only concentrated on words for about two years and I knew that to be dealing with such weighty subject matter it needed to work at that very root level or it was going to fall apart completely.”
It’s pretty much a major cultural event every time PJ Harvey releases a new album. With Let England Shake, Harvey doesn’t just push the limits of her catalog, she wholly redefines it. “My ground rule when I’m beginning to write a new record is: How far can I get away from the last thing I did?” Harvey reflects. “The more you open your mind to it the more you realize how far away from getting anyway near it you are.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint any singular reason why Let England Shake is an austerely outstanding album, but its collection of twelve well-crafted songs are arguably some of the best of her illustrious career. Twelve formidable masterpieces for The Resistance, from a writer, singer and musician at the top of her game.
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
8. In the Dark Places
9. Bitter Branches
10. Hanging in the Wire
11. Written on the Forehead
12. The Colour of the Earth