Music Reviews
Let England Shake

PJ Harvey Let England Shake

(Island) Rating - 10/10

When a new PJ Harvey record is announced, the first thing that comes to mind is the question of what will be her new guise. Like a renowned and poised method actor, Harvey playfully inhabits her distinguishing personas and lives them to the hilt. She also makes these performances memorable: from To Bring You My Love’s enrapturing teases to White Chalk’s oppressed cries, Harvey manipulates our senses and digs deep into our voyeuristic desires. She continually outguesses her public, as much as she challenges herself, taking command by learning any instrument she believes is vital.

Let England Shake may be Harvey’s less vainglorious manifestation, but it is also her most intoxicating. Rather than exposing a personal voice, she exercises her political inquietudes with studied intellectualism. Sightless accusations could be made about Harvey giving a condescending eye with macro-political pamphlets. In turn, Harvey speaks in the point of view of an Englishwoman who is distressed with the vague tactical policies that have defined her native land. Harvey hardly opines of her homeland. Instead, she holds the same posture any respectable middle-class English person would have were they to wrinkle the flag of St. George. In England, she indubitably bawls in vocal acrobaciesTo you England, I cling/Undaunted, never failing love for you, contorting a duality every disillusioned citizen has with the place they came from.

In Let England Shake, Harvey adjusts her helmet and belts her solder’s rifle to her hip – instead of stories from the sea, she reflects upon the consequences of being a military man in the trenches. The title track opens with the dominance of sanguine persuasion – she persuasively echoes the name Bobby like a recruit fairie, stating: pack up your troubles and let’s head out/to the fountain of death. A good-humored arrangement of the Four Lads’ Istanbul (Not Constantinople) plays in the background, contrasting beautiful imagery with the imminence of war: and the birds are silent/and the insects are courting/and by the shores/heavy stones falling. She also ends the bombardment without remorse - in The Colour of the Earth, an obituary about dear Louis (Louis ran forward from the line) is sung with great English pride, having him in his thoughts without overlooking what became of him (He’s still up on that hill/20 years on that hill/nothing more than a pile of bones). The lyrical sheet constantly recurs its themes like a limitless divergent shift between the idyllic and chaotic.

What’s most peculiar is how Harvey focuses on a long omitted stain in English history – the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. The impact might’ve not been as heavily reported, but Harvey finds great significance in the 30,000 or so who risked their lives. All and Everyone starts calming enough with the faint strum of an autoharp and comforting bongo hits until breaking into a uproar of guitars. Like the fickleness of being on dangerous ground, a series of high and lows level as her voice incrementally rises with the words death was everywhere, until it goes back to a somber scenario of doom and gloom; a droning trumpet mourns another casualty. There are lush, beautiful moments as well – Hanging in the Wire is one of Harvey’s most accomplished moments on record. Composed of a constant percussion riff and a finely tuned piano, she vigilantly whispers about listening to a far off symphony atop the white cliffs of Dover. She pays respects to the British allies who fought in foreign land, complying with the inexorability of warfare as a widespread malady.

Much of the lyricism in Let England Shake appears to be inspired by Laurence Binyon’s Ode to Remembrance, a series of stanzas found in his poem For the Fallen, that symbolically connects both the British Expeditionary Force and the ANZAC Army Corps. Its message now holds bearing to all casualties of war. Maybe Harvey may have stretched out this concept a tad bit, but her brutally honest pictures of battle strike a powerful chord. Moments of positivism are seen on occasion, but the message in hand is altogether acerbic; in other words, this is not a cheerful piece of work. And all the better for it: Harvey sounds spellbound, portraying the subject matter in hand with a fervid spirit. She’s not sermonizing on the issue, but gently urging for something to be done.