PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Album cover
Folk, Indie Rock/Alternative
Vagrant Records
PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake Review rating:
4.5
User rating:
Average: 4 (2 votes)

It is somewhat perplexing at first to really gauge what whimsical songstress Polly Jean Harvey is trying to accomplish with her behemoth of an eighth record Let England Shake. A politically-oriented and musically ambitious declaration of peace Harvey enters her forties with an astute grace. Still wily, still observant, still innovative, PJ returns nearly as sharp as ever—lyrically, musically and otherwise. While it is easy to say that Ms. Harvey has never released a poor record, ever, Let England Shake presents the most exhilarated PJ since she helped define alt-folk in the Nineties. Her quirks are on full display with tracks like “Let England Shake,” “All and Everyone” and “Written on the Forehead.” But it is her anthemicly rapturous vocals that hold the whole thing together.

As the horns blare, the male choirs hum in the background and acoustic guitar twangs Harvey floats in an out effortlessly almost working on a completely different plane than the instrumentation surrounding her. As soon as PJ enters a track it becomes her pet, a toy with which to implement a directive, evoke an emotion. And while the record is without question a set-piece for a message of universal harmony—Let England Shake never impedes upon the listener's world-views. Instead opting to offer up grave images of warfare, a vast, audacious empire built on the backs of its people and the blood of foreigners, instead of outright doctrine. All the while you're guided through this imperialistic armageddon by Harvey; your hand in hers you traverse the battlefield—yet there is no need to worry, as she in no way leads you astray.

To call Let England Shake a “political album” would be selling the grim imagery that Harvey has created far too short. For years now she has claimed her music is in no way autobiographical—even as fans and critics alike cannot separate reality from the prose. Polly Jean possesses a knack for almost literally embodying the characters of her music. Which lends her tunes an air of authenticity even as the first hand experience is debatable. Let England Shake is no different. Effortlessly Harvey fits the shoes of a steadfast nationalist (“All and Everyone”), a broken solider (“The Words That Maketh Murder”) a soap-box pacifistic (“In The Dark Places”) and even a melancholy military spouse (“On Battleship Hill”). Each instance portrayed as though the subject were as alien to Polly Jean as breathing.

While Let England Shake may cause a ruffle to somebody's proverbial feathers—what makes it such an arresting listen is how unassuming the whole experience is. By not occupying a single space or point of view, Harvey paints a cinematic picture for us. Her world is not of rolling fields, aristocratic gentry and rigid morals. She occupies an almost Orwellian space; acting akin to a Winston Smith—preferring to embody those who see the horrors first-hand. Giving an insight to the spinning cog's of Harvey's oligarchical dominion. Yet for all the fiction Let England Shake couldn't possibly sound more real; more poignant. “I've seen and done things I want to forget/I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,” she states at the onset of “The Words That Maketh Murder.” And while one could assume PJ is as versed in the art of warfare as shes in Tiger-taming, it is the conviction (and angelic tone) with which she delivers these diary-page expulsions and sorrowful hymns that pushes nearly every song on the record from “politico fodder” to “emotive anthem.” "What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” she asserts in “The Words...” final bridge with a tone so bitter-sweetly crippled it is near heart-breaking.

Yet the record, as a whole, is not rooted in the mundane, morose or chaotic. Let England Shake is without a doubt an album about love. Love in the purest sense: unrelenting passion. Whether it be for the future, for peace, for reformation or for violence, Harvey finds a middle ground for her ideology. Bypassing all the hoopla that can come in tow with a “message” album Polly Jean instead opts for a wide-screen endeavor. Preferring a show-not-tell policy, effectively skipping any possible backlash Let England Shake shines bright.

“Like water/Like air/To you England/I cling,” she quivers on album standout “England.” With an unbridled, patriotic compassion Harvey constructs an open love-letter to her homeland. Essentially summing up everything that makes Let England Shake such a thrilling listen: Harvey's watchful eye and introspective pen divulge to us secrets—yet these aren't the words of some bitter anarchist. Harvey's valid criticisms of human nature, unrelenting greed and inherent violence are voiced out of a complete and utter devotion. Harvey isn't simply preaching peace or wagging her finger at those too quick to pull a trigger; she is questioning what value we see in it, from the point of view of someone who has enough disdain in her heart to know the value of love. Harvey isn't asking us to stop as much as she's asking us to question why we're acting so foolish in the first place. And that alone is what will keep Let England Shake blaring from speakers and ticking away on headphones long after 2011 has passed by.

1. Let England Shake
2. The Last Living Rose
3. The Glorious Land
4. The Words That Maketh Murder
5. All & Everyone
6. On Battleship Hill
7. England
8. In The Dark Places
9. Bitter Branches
10. Hanging In The Wire
11. Written On The Forehead
12. The Colour Of The Earth

Polly Jean Harvey, born October 9, 1969 in Yeovil, United Kingdom and raised in nearby Corscombe (Dorset), is an English singer-songwriter. She has recorded as a solo artist under the name PJ Harvey, but she began her career as part of a trio (with drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan) also named PJ Harvey in 1991.

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