Who: PJ Harvey
What: Let England Shake
When: February 2011
PJ Harvey has written, ultimately one of the most tragic, heartbreaking albums of the 21st century. A first glance at the album title, song titles and lyrics mark it as a very English record, one that feels, paradoxically, completely out of time, and also absolutely timely, without feeling the need to reach for melodrama.
Musically, she incorporates elements of English folk, early rock and reverbed dream-pop. She plays a whole lot of instruments, including the autoharp, zither, saxophone, and others, which she uses skillfully to create a series of hardy, engaging melodies that stand up well to repeated listens, and in fact, welcome them. But, it’s important to listen to the lyrics, as without them, the record sounds excellent, but thanks to the lazy shuffle and bounce of many of the tracks, you’ll feel it lacks bite.
She reveals the real world behind her plasant melodies, her lyrics paint a striking portrait of war, depicting the absolute devastation of World War I, the image of “soldiers falling like lumps of meat" is truly disturbing. The horrors of war are just that, and she doesn’t shy away from it, she forces us to look deep into our own pasts and see the centuries of wasted life, and fear and war, in one of the most apt albums of our time. It's universal, necessary and extremely powerful, demanding your attention and respect.
In the opening of the first, and incidentally the title track, she croons: “The West’s asleep, let England shake/weighted down with the silent dead” in an unsettling, almost ethereal manner, perfectly setting the tone for what’s to come. The album almost reads like a love letter, the music is misty eyed and gentle, but again it’s the lyrics that betray her true vision of England, as she tenderly sings about "The damp grey filthiness of ages, and battered books, fog rolling down behind the mountains and on the graveyards and dead sea captains." on ‘The Last Living Rose’.
I can’t be enamoured with her voice, it seems a silly thing to take issue with, when the album is clearly so exemplary, but when she makes the leaps inter her higher register, it grates, which is really disappointing.
However that’s really the only criticism I can make. ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ is amazing, showing just how perfectly she makes pretty and horrifying sit side by side, using the combination of the harshness of her voice, and the smooth, deep rumble of John Parish to really engage with the subject matter. She tells the tale of a soldier, who has seen and done things he wants to forget, and it breaks down into one of the most sunny, upbeat outros of the whole album, a sickening and and almost comical ending.
She is an amazingly talented songwriter, this is a truly brilliant album. End of.