Release Date: Feb 15, 2011
Record label: Island
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Click to Listen to PJ Harvey's Let England Shake All British rock stars eventually make their version of Led Zeppelin III — the album where they look to the history and mythology of England for inspiration. Usually, this means pastoral celebrations and druids dancing around the maypole. (Hark, minstrel! Is that a bustle in the hedgerow?) But Polly Jean Harvey, as always, does things her own way, so there's no celebration on Let England Shake.
PJ Harvey is one of the few artists who can release different material with a different focus and sound on each album and have it always be good. Her latest album, Let England Shake, is a lush, well-constructed, and passionate open letter to her home country of England—a rare outward focus rather than her usual inward, personal, and biting focus. My exposure to Harvey is somewhat limited to her Mercury Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea—which is a bluesy, more straightforward affair that many called her greatest album when it came out in 2000—and a few tracks from 2007’s White Chalk.
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.
April 25, 1915. World War I is less than a year old, and the Western Front is locked in stalemate. On the orders of Field Marshal ‘Your country needs you’ Kitchener, Anzac troops lay siege to the peninsula of Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire. The purpose? To capture the forts that control the passage of the Dardanelles straits with a sub-plot of simultaneously drawing Bulgaria and Greece – Ottoman enemies – into the war on the Allied side.What is intended as a swift operation becomes a bloody eight-month struggle across Anzac Cove, Bolton’s Ridge and Battleship Hill, with epic loss of life.
There are a multitude of options open to the modern rock star wishing to announce to the world that they have embarked on a new album. You can give interviews, allow webcams into your studio, offer a free download as a taster. Or you can appear on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning politics show in a feathered headdress, playing the autoharp over an incessant, off-key sample of the Four Lads' 1953 hit Istanbul (Not Constantinople), while a nonplussed Gordon Brown looks on.
Last year, my girlfriend’s parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas; panicking somewhat, I requested ‘A bottle of whisky. Or a book about the First World War. Because I’m old now’. And you know, it was sort of meant as a joke, but when a litre of whisky and two books on WWI appeared on December 25th, I cannot deny that all three items proved to be thoroughly moreish.
The longtime shape-shifter follows up 2007’s austere White Chalk with Let England Shake, her loosest, most eclectic effort in years. England veers from nervy guitar rock to dreamy café pop; ”Written on the Forehead” even samples an old reggae tune. In characteristically perverse fashion, Harvey uses the bright grooves to present her grim thoughts on the world?s armed conflicts.
Following PJ Harvey's career has been like watching a cat chase some invisible object, always poised but shrewdly ruthless. From the roaring energy of Dry to the sparse, haunting White Chalk, Harvey's oeuvre has developed over a pattern of sharp turns, spanning such a diverse number of sounds that even returns to old ideas feel entirely new. Over nearly 20 years, she's developed a specific set of familiar traits while never making the same album twice.
"The West's asleep," PJ Harvey declares on the first line of her new album, Let England Shake, before spending the next 40 minutes aiming to shame, frighten, and agitate it into action. When Polly Jean Harvey burst into the public consciousness in the early 90s, her gravelly voice, outsized personality, and often disturbing lyrics gave the alt-rock world a crucial shot of excitement. That early work is still among the most raw and real guitar music to emerge from the past few decades, so no surprise, it's a version of PJ Harvey a lot of people still miss.
Speaking about Generation Kill, the HBO mini-series about an American Marines battalion in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, series co-writer Evan Wright described the show's mixture of intense combat and dark humor as intentionally discomforting. Yet members of the actual Marines unit felt it accurate, saying that humor was a "coping mechanism" and a "no-brainer. " What these soldiers and the series achieved -- a seemingly contradictory balance of emotional highs and lows -- is also the basis of the blues.
PJ Harvey always explodes possibility when she shreds convention and tradition. Thankfully, she does just that on this Anglo-centric head-trip. It’s not that her structures or signatures, assisted by longtime collaborators John Parish, Flood and Mick Harvey, are out-of-the-box. But married with her alternately fractured and angelic delivery, beatific serenades like “England” or lo-fi stomps like “The Last Living Rose” crawl like nationalist nightmares out of Harvey’s brilliant brain.
Both an excoriation and celebration of her home country, Let England Shake is as straightforward a concept as PJ Harvey has ever addressed on record. Following up 2007’s largely piano-based White Chalk, this album is ornate by comparison, as the songs are often buttressed by autoharp, brass, and thickets of electric guitar. Yet there’s ample room left for Harvey’s rich, sonorous vocals to breathe, and the record’s sprightly instrumentation often belies the gravitas of her words, as she brazenly navigates the treacherous terrain of her nation’s rich, and often violent, history.
Review Summary: Dulce et decorum est pro patria moriThe words ‘protest album’ or ‘protest song’ can provoke a sense of sarcastic recognition in a lot of people. The more measured musical responses to world events, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio”, can be overruled by the embarrassing pomp of Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” or even Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”. So it’s understandable that some may err on the side of caution when approaching PJ Harvey’s latest effort.
PJ Harvey followed her ghostly collection of ballads, White Chalk, with Let England Shake, a set of songs strikingly different from what came before it except in its Englishness. White Chalk's haunted piano ballads seemed to emanate from an isolated manse on a moor, but here Harvey chronicles her relationship with her homeland through songs revolving around war. Throughout the album, she subverts the concept of the anthem -- a love song to one’s country -- exploring the forces that shape nations and people.
Unlike other artists who eschew the songwriting ‘thought process’ while spouting nose-in-the-air, pie-in-the-sky proclamations that ‘this stuff just comes to me,’ Polly Jean Harvey is brewing, concocting, theorizing. She’s decidedly on the outskirts: while iPods are jiggling with the Shuffle function as song-after-song albums continue to decline, PJ Harvey has shown her undying predilection toward the dying notion of a “concept album.” In fact, it’s the concept that’s so intriguing about her latest. While albums like Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and To Bring You My Love found her looking inward — Let England Shake sees her peeking beyond her inner observations into the complicated web of English politics.
Last year Polly Jean Harvey turned 41, prepared her eighth studio, Let England Shake—and marked the tenth anniversary of 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. I mention Stories as a watershed moment in an already rich, extraordinary solo career. That was the year Harvey did the unspeakable and unthinkable: she made a pop album. A big, sleek, mom-friendly pop album, with bright melodies and an attractive cover shot and lyrics about love and redemption and New York City.
Much will be said about the continental drift of PJ Harvey's latest, but compare the bodice-rippers of 1992's Dry to the corseted piano penance of 2007's White Chalk and the bigger picture becomes clear. In between, Harvey's shrugged off expectations and criticism, made deviations, and channeled desire on her terms. With Let England Shake, her eighth studio LP, she ups the octave and pulls up the bloody roots of her homeland's past.
Since PJ Harvey is a veteran artist who, in her 20-year career, has yet to either make a bad record or repeat herself, to call her latest, Let England Shake, one of her strongest efforts to date is a bold statement, but it’s true — this a brilliant record by an artist impervious to aging. This, her tenth full-length, and first as an “indie” artist, is a conflicted commentary on her native nation’s complicated, war-torn history and lordly jingoism. As such, lyrical themes chart a range territories from dire to hopeless — touching on themes of death, unrest, murder, death, fanaticism, war, murder, oppression, death and even murder.
God bless unique, unfathomable, great Queen Polly. Martin Aston 2011. The title of Polly Harvey’s seventh album, 2007’s White Chalk, seemed to address England’s psycho-geography by way of Dover’s iconic coastline. Perhaps that’s projection. But her eighth most definitely does. It’s a ….