PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Music Review)

Let England Shake cover

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Calling PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake a return to form is misleading. After all, she has reinvented herself with each new album. The first sign of her recent decline was when Uh Huh Her reprised past sounds instead of creating new ones. So this new album is a “return” only in the sense that it is nothing like what she has done before, and therefore sounds vital and natural.

Let England Shake is different not only in sound, but in focus. Harvey has turned her intense gaze away from herself and towards humanity in general. Specifically bemoaning her native England’s decline, she lays the blame on its destructive wars. Harvey’s singing here is mellow and restrained, admittedly not playing to her strengths, and the unusual (for her) backing vocals are a little flat, but that hardly matters: This is a vision as arresting as any she has presented yet.

In fact, the vision is unrelentingly bleak. Harvey’s western audiences may not often think about violence around the world, but this album offers no alternative to the idea that our time is dominated by war. Her quiet voice seems lost in a tide of nationalism and forces outside her control, telling stories of doomed soldiers and civilians fleeing through sewage. The mood is incredibly effective, offering no moments of anger to provide catharsis. The closest it comes to release is in the sarcasm evident on the propaganda-styled chant of “The Glorious Land”. (This is one of the standout songs, by the way, twisting a children’s chant about their rich, fertile nation into one in which the land is plowed by tanks and produces orphans.)

The songs cover wars past and present, confusing the message about England’s current decline. All the war portrayed here seems equally hopeless, with “On Battleship Hill” highlighting the unhealed damage that remains even after nature has reclaimed a battleground. However, this change in focus, which lets Harvey’s stories shift between survivors, victims, and observers, provides the main source of variety on the album without ever letting up on its point.

Let England Shake is far from Harvey’s best album, and not all fans of her rougher, more personal work will find the spark that they’re hoping for here. Despite that, this is an incredibly affecting document of our times. It’s difficult to listen to repeatedly, but that’s actually a testament to its songcraft. PJ Harvey is back in excellent form, and if it isn’t exactly with the sound you would expect, how can that be a surprise?

Grade: B+


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