Let it Shake You to the Core
To begin, Let England Shake is an achievement. Fans of PJ Harvey will fall deeper in love with her, and skeptics may just be won over by the genius of this record. Yes, it’s about England: Harvey, like many Brits, seems inspired (or agitated) by the vast range of English culture—its monarchy, its infamous colonial influence, its under-appreciated street culture. Yet you don’t have to be an Anglophile to get it.
These are impeccably crafted songs, and the accompanying 12 videos directed by war documentarian Seamus Murphy are equally awe-inspiring. They flesh out the imagery Harvey so richly describes from song to song. In fact, the video for the first single, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” is where we must start. Here she sits with an autoharp, taking a sip of water as she flips through a plastic-sleeved songbook before she starts wailing.
The song is a beautiful standout, and one of the album’s darkest tunes. A classic distant-sounding reverb-heavy guitar strums out the intro before a chunky, simple percussion kicks in. Then Harvey’s ghostly voice introduces some disturbing images: “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat / Blown and shot out beyond belief / Arms and legs were in the trees.” Not long before the first verse, her accompanying backing band chimes in on the chorus with a deep sax part weaving in and out of the song. It’s brilliant, and her utter control over the song’s complex layout is evidenced not just in the video, but also in the listening.
“The Last Living Rose” starts out with one of the record’s strongest couplets: “God damn Europeans / Take me back to beautiful England.” The quiet and low bump of a bass beat piques your interest, Harvey’s lyric picks it up, and then a tambourine and snare beat chime in. A languid sax fills out the sadness; the song clocks in at under 3 minutes so you’ll be hitting repeat a few times.
What follows is another stellar track, “The Glorious Land,” with a rather brilliant militaristic bugle reveille. It drifts in and out of the song with no warning and no reason; it’s not on the beat, it sounds out of place and then, all the same, perfectly appropriate. It’s here that some of the most memorable lyrics emerge: “How is our glorious country sewn? / Not with wheat and corn / How is our glorious land bestowed? / Oh, America / Oh, England.” She finally brings America in but not necessarily as a note of respect—she draws instead on the opposites, the differences between the two head-strong nations.
This review can only cover so much. Other strong songs include “On Battleship Hill,” the delicately beautiful “Hanging in the Wire,” and “In the Dark Places,” all packed with emotion, build-up, vocal acrobatics, and turns of mood, tone and temperature. Your reviewer enjoyed Let England Shake even more than Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and it’s definitely one of the best records to make it over the Atlantic in 2011.