“Let England Shake” – ‘PJ Harvey’ [Joint Review]
English musician Polly Jean – PJ – Harvey returns to the music-scene after four years since the release of “White Chalk”. Her eighth studio album two-and-a-half-years in the making shatters any resounding preconceptions concerning thematic albums, with “Let England Shake” – a conspicuous wartime narrative in the style of eminent tracks like “The Unknown Soldier” [‘The Doors’] or “Born In The USA” [‘Bruce Springsteen’]. Follow-up to 7” single “The Words That Maketh Murder” and accompanying b-side “The Big Guns Called Me Back Again”, “Let England Shake’s” pervasive critical-acclaim only adds to the epic-ectoplasm positively oozing from its namesake now being carved in stone.
NME’s Mike Williams poignantly stated that: “Francis Ford Coppola can lay claim to the war movie. Ernest Hemingway the war novel. Polly Jean Harvey, a 41-year-old from Dorset, has claimed the war album…”
2011 has been dealt a whopper: artists, watch out – the bar has just been raised…
“Let England Shake” is relatively contextless; Harvey’s dislike of repeating herself dispels any carry-over characteristics from prior recordings, thus rendering a discographical-backtrack optional. Yet, contrarily, she has cited external-influences ranging from T.S. Eliot to Salvador Dali, to more musically-affiliated artists like ‘The Doors’ and ‘The Velvet Underground’. Lyrics draw inspiration from the Gallipoli campaign; also, both modern civilian- and military-testimonies regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. Stylistically driven in a rock/lo-fi-esque physique, “Let England Shake” encompasses a forty-minute LP-timespan; conversely, this album endures. Forty-minutes seem to stretch for hours, sweeping away listeners in a fog of war.
Newcomers unacquainted with the aforementioned artists should steer towards ‘Arcade Fire’ for a contextual-refinement. “Funeral” and/or “Neon Bible” are sufficient comparisons. Both have mixed male/female vocals, and an indie rock feel. Coincidentally, “Let England Shake” was also written in a church.
Harvey’s predominant vocal-appearance resembles a miscellany of Régine Chassagne, Cæcilie Trier and Maddy Prior. Her distinct tenor-attributes effectively displace the often bass-heavy instrumentation, coalescing with treble-orientated guitar. The offset created by both male lead- and backing-vocals is striking and well-placed. They further emphasise Harvey, stressing key phrases in and around memorable chorus’, making her deliverance just that much better. And for those expecting each and every track to be a cacophony of misery, think again. While lyrically the album isn’t largely cheerful, the delivery of some tracks – like “Let England Shake” – is upbeat and fast-paced enough for you to think otherwise, as it subliminally conveys its anti-war sentiments. Nonetheless, phrases like:
I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat…
… the grey, damp filthiness of ages…
… permeate the entire album, resembling a war-orientated, Eliot-inspired Wasteland, as they are sewn together like a bloodied patchwork quilt. The sometimes-Anglophilic tendencies eventually boil down to an explicit, Generals Die In Bed introspective – an everyman’s standpoint, constructed in the first-person. From Gallipoli to the Middle East, the grandness – the scale – of the album attempts to link these seemingly unrelated wars under the reiterated waste-of-life contention. It neither glorifies nor condones the actions which take place, and certainly isn’t for the fainthearted. While the graphic – debatably, morbid – nature of “Let England Shake” may be off-putting for some, it is still an affecting, beautiful rendition worthy of its inspiration. With that said, music here is more like an accompaniment rather than the objective focal point: without the lyrics, it’s hollow and lifeless. Delivered in a semi-bard-like fashion, “Let England Shake” is still considerably more musical than it is lyrically-assonant. This should be required listening for the UN, in my opinion…
“Let England Shake” – previously-mentioned namesake for the album – opens introductorily. “The Last Living Rose” follows, opening with the flat, monotone beating of a tympanic drum and treble-heavy guitar. Lyrically, we follow a soldier, dreaming-up the disproportionate life back home in comparison with conditions on the line. At 0:56, the appearance of a saxophone wonderfully encapsulates the drudgery of wartime. “The Glorious Land” slowly builds one instrument on top of another, from percussion to airy, resonant guitar – the bleating of a light-brigade trumpet being blown sounds a charge over the top. Skipping “The Words That Maketh Murder” – a blatant description of the front – and “All And Everyone” – a dreamy, five-minute interlude of the same subject – “On Battleship Hill”, perhaps the strongest track “Let England Shake” has to offer, opens casually with the jazzy hiss-and-shake of percussion and flamenco-tempered guitar. This then dies away in preparation for the lyrics – vibrato-guitar underpinning Prior-reminiscent vocal-highs – which resonate like voices on the wind. Then, tracks like “In The Dark Places” remind me of “The Dot” off “Chimes & Bells”, and we’re thrown into an altogether different world.
At first, I wasn’t convinced. “Let England Shake” : just another lo-fi-rock album dancing on the cusp of average. But then, I delved deeper. Listened again and again. Made out words, phrases otherwise obscure. Didn’t want to: fell in love, over and over. Faultless. Utterly.
Reviewer’s Pick: “On Battleship Hill”
Stand-out Tracks: “Let England Shake”, “The Last Living Rose”, “The Glorious Land”, “The Words That Maketh Murder”, “All And Everyone”, “On Battleship Hill”
The Enantiomorphic God