PJ Harvey – “Let England Shake” (2011, Island/Vagrant)
Reviewer: Tony Paese
This review originally was published on Tony’s personal blog.
It is his first of what should be many reviews for “Hear! Hear!”
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Punk rocker PJ Harvey had never really impressed me. Despite essentially universal acclaim from critics on everything she has ever released, as well as a solid fan base, I would give her stuff a listen and shrug it off with the same “Eh” I give so many critically lauded records (i.e. Psychocandy, Kid A, anything released by U2…). But I decided I would give Harvey’s latest work, Let England Shake, one listen-through in the hopes that she might surprise me. And surprise me she did.
I expected to have to sift through twelve tracks of typical Harvey – aggressive, angular, guitar-heavy ballads infused with low, whisper-sung verses which are then followed by choruses that explode out of nowhere to force you into turning the volume down several notches so that your eardrums don’t break. Fortunately, that’s not at all what I heard. In fact, track number one, the title track, begins with what I think might be a xylophone. A xylophone, drums, and a guitar that is seemingly hidden away in a dimly-lit corner so as to allow some other sounds to take the spotlight for a while. Never has she sounded more refined and detail-oriented.
Harvey’s voice is also dramatically changed. A more controlled, quavering fairy-call that made her sound practically sweet compared with the forceful punk-rock bellows that punched holes through her previous records. The change lends a tone of mysticality that fits in perfectly with the instrumental changes as well as the album’s main theme.
The theme of the album is war. For some reason I kept imagining snapshots of the Revolutionary, despite repeated references to battlegrounds on English soil. The lyrics are a little gruesome at times, as per her usual, but the concept as a whole is pretty cool this time. Word-wise I think Harvey has taken a serious step forward. What truly makes this a great war record, however, is the drumming. Some tracks are marching songs (“The Words That Maketh Murder”, “The Colour of the Earth”), and I can clearly see armies chanting along and stomping to the beat. Others emulate the battle itself, frenzied and chaotic (“Bitter Branches”). Moments in tracks such as “On Battleship Hill”, where Harvey’s voice reaches a trippy, almost ethereal pitch, hearken back to ancient battlefields (this time more like the soundtrack to a Lord of the Rings movie) where soldiers wield swords in slow motion and martyrs for the good guys last just long enough to say goodbye once the battle is over.
Now it wouldn’t be PJ Harvey without some badass guitar dominating at least one track. That track is “Bitter Branches”, one of my favorites. Most reminiscent of her previous albums, the song is a lament for the wives of soldiers leaving home for war. “Young wives with white hands / wave goodbye. / Their arms as bitter branches / spreading into the world,” accompanied by the low, angular, catchy-bass-line-ish guitar (sorry about that, I really don’t know how to describe it any more eloquently than by making up that ridiculous word) that I’ve come to associate her earlier work with. The result is a powerful, heart-wrenching war ballad that still kicks some serious punk-rock ass.
Make sure to stick around for the last two tracks – they are the best. “Written On the Forehead” is a murky, swirling mix of electric guitar, spacey vocals from Harvey, and a strange chant in the background from a chorus repeating the phrase “Let it burn, let it burn, let it burn burn burn.”, while “The Colour of the Earth” features a male vocal lead which fits perfectly with the song and with the record as a whole.
The musical icing on this rock-n-roll cake is the fact that there is not one weak track. That’s pretty rare. Each tune is completely unpredictable and each keeps the listening interesting with a wide range of instruments and backing vocals. The album as a whole is a rocker, beautifully laced with sonic peculiarities and the gravities of war. My enjoyment increases with each listen, and I would love nothing more than to see it become a landmark in British rock-n-roll history. I am, at the very least, quite comfortable saying that Let England Shake is my favorite album, British or otherwise, to have been released in the year of 2011.