Review // PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
In honour of her second Mercury Prize win, I’ve decided to reprise my review of the winning album, Let England Shake. This was published on its release last year on a website whose editor no longer speaks to me. There’s a load of shite talk in it and no, I don’t know why I did the “recommended tracks” bit. I never do the recommended tracks bit. Loser.
It’s just over three years since Polly Jean Harvey last graced our ears with a solo record, 2007’s White Chalk, though it feels much longer.
In the meantime, she recorded and toured a collaborative album with long-time producer John Parish, but most of that time she spent re-inventing herself as an artist. Harvey made her name in the late ‘90s as the aloof, enigmatic icon of the British indie scene who, along with Bjork and Tori Amos, helped make guitar music accessible for girls again.
In contrast to the intensely personal and introspective music that has characterised her 20-year career to date, Let England Shake is a brutal and harrowing examination of Harvey’s native land and the legacy of blood it has built up through the ages. From Gallipoli to Fallujah, Let England Shake is the musician’s answer to a journalist’s war diary.
Harvey presents stark images of war free without any political or moral consideration and, in theory at least, leaves it to the listener to form their own opinion.
Let England Shake is neither the standard punk rock anti-war screed nor is it the glorification of epic battle that so attracts heavy metal bands: it sits somewhere politely in the middle, with only standout track ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ putting forward any real moral judgement, though Harvey’s choice to appropriate a throwaway line from Eddie Cochran’s 1958 classic ‘Summertime Blues’ (“What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”) is impressive.
Musically, there are strong echoes of Sonic Youth in its wishy-washy, dreamscape guitars and airy, layered female and male vocals (courtesy of producer John Parish), while Harvey’s higher-pitched vocals are reminiscent of a young Kate Bush or, closer to home, Cathy Davey.
Far from being an album just for the English, there’s a universal quality to all of these songs, and it’s admirable how honestly Harvey confronts the bloodiest aspects of her country’s history – the sort of ruthless self-examination we may not yet be capable of in this country.
Recommended Tracks: ‘This Glorious Land’ ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ ‘Written on the Forehead’