“The West’s asleep,” PJ Harvey declares on the first line of her new album, Let England Shake, before spending the next 40 minutes aiming to shame, frighten, and agitate it into action. When Polly Jean Harvey burst into the public consciousness in the early 90s, her gravelly voice, outsized personality, and often disturbing lyrics gave the alt-rock world a crucial shot of excitement. That early work is still among the most raw and real guitar music to emerge from the past few decades, so no surprise, it’s a version of PJ Harvey a lot of people still miss
Gentle and insistent, the beats and melodies on England have a timeless quality, as though Harvey’s new sound has been steeped in a maturity that comes from the time period she is referencing. The album is about war in general and World War I in most specific instances. Harvey evokes a dreamy 60’s sound, which is strongly evident on the first and title track that kicks the album off with an apocalyptic-sock-hop melody. The insistent and gently clanging beat, influenced by traditional folk, is the perfect backdrop for her airy and echoing vocals
The album, written over the course of two and a half years and recorded in a 19th century church in Dorset (Harvey’s home county), is a personal album that reflects Harvey’s relationship with her home country – directly referenced in song titles such as ‘England’, ‘Let England Shake’, and ‘The Glorious Land’. At the same time, the album speaks about universal concepts; songs such as ‘The Colour of the Earth’, with lyrics like “Later in the dark / I thought I heard Louis’ voice / calling for his mother then me / but I couldn’t get to him” could apply to any wartime friendship
The Great War remains a rich and resonant subject for art because it briefly caused the world to step back, aghast and afraid to look at what it had done. the wholesale slaughter of Europe’s youth was justified by ‘the war to end all wars’. The the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, was meant to prevent war, at least on this scale, from ever happening again
On ‘The Words That Maketh Murder‘, Harvey blackly and comically shakes her head at those post-WWI diplomatic hopes. After spinning tales lamenting what a soldier has seen and done, she and her cohorts- frequent collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey- break into the jaunty closing refrain from Summertime Blues “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” It’s a hilariously depressing coda; her song’s character has experienced the unimaginable and is looking to an international peacekeeping body for help.
Throughout the record, Harvey sings in her higher register, as she often did on the underrated White Chalk, granting her some detachment from her surroundings. Instead of owning the spotlight outright, as she did in the 90s, she floats above and beside it; it’s a neat trick that forces listeners to crawl closer to her words, allowing them to slowly come into focus. The textural and tonal qualities of her voice are made malleable, a scalpel wielded with precision rather than a sword. On the whole, she carries distant echoes of her peers and successors- Joanna Newsom, Björk, Kate Bush- while remaining clearly and identifiably herself.
Harvey does this musically too, incorporating traces of English folk, early rock, reverbed dream-pop, and disparate familiar melodies (as well as Summertime Blues, she appropriates Niney the Observer’s apocalyptic Blood and Fire on the one directly Iraq-related song here, ‘Written on the Forehead’) as a foundation. With autoharp, zither, saxophone, and other new instruments added to her palette, Harvey crucially crafts sturdy, earwormy melodies. If you didn’t listen to the words, the record would scan as beautiful, even docile or tame. Harvey forces you to locate the real world behind a pleasantly hazy foreground
Even considering all of the horror on display, this is her most straightforward and easy to embrace album in a decade. Along with ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ and the bouncing title track, the radio rock of ‘The Last Living Rose’, and ‘Written on the Forehead’ would all make excellent singles. They’ll all get a chance, so to speak: Harvey commissioned war photographer Seamus Murphy to craft videos for each of the record’s dozen tracks. As much of a piece as this record is, its songs also work in their own contexts, and despite using a limited number of players and instruments, Harvey and co. locate a wide range of approaches to their central subject; alongside the singles, those include the rousing folk-rock of ;Bitter Branches’, the delicate ‘Hanging in the Wire’, and the acoustic ‘England’
The sixth track, ‘On Battleship Hill‘, is so well masterminded that you almost don’t notice Harvey’s voice, floating clearly through speakers, singing “Cruel nature has won again.” She croons the lyrics so sweetly and softly over a soothing autoharp that it’s a hard juxtaposition to think that such a beautiful and evocative song comes from a 1915 military campaign (Gallipoli) with over 43,000 allied troop casualties. Harvey’s spare lyrics say so much while saying so little, creating a musical atmosphere with simple lines, such as “the land returns to how it’s always been / thyme carried on the wind / jagged mountains jutting out / cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth”
The vocalization on the track ‘England‘ demonstrates Harvey’s varied range of sound; her voice crackles as she practically moans the refrain: “England… you leave a taste. A bitter one. I have searched for your springs, but people they stagnate with time.” The sentiment of this song sums up the sentiment towards war and violence that comes through clear on the whole album; it leaves a bitter taste. The songs, however, leave anything but. Let England Shake listens like a slow war march – like a call to arms for pacifists everywhere, except Harvey’s weapons lay in her ability to create musical genius
Even a cursory glance at the album- its title, song titles, lyrics- marks this as a very English record. Its pastoralism befits Harvey’s West Country background and recording setting. Not since William Blake ranted about the “dark satanic mills” that marred our “green and pleasant land” has England been through such a thorough and unflinching examination as this. In the end the album is a stirring act of tough-love patriotism that turns a record you’ll respect into one you’ll also love