There comes a time in every artists’ life (artists with longevity, that is) when they peak both musically and lyrically. Sometimes it’s on the same album, and sometimes these two epiphanies arrive at separate times.
For PJ Harvey, the time for both is now.
Let England Shake is a lyrically biting album that revolves around, and crash dives into, England herself; from its history pertaining to the triumph and struggles of war and battles to the personal tragedies and misfortunes of those who played as pawns in those tragedies, there is an undercurrent of bittersweetness and a distinct love/hate sentiment that runs through these tales of her homeland.
It’s not a concept album in linear terms, but rather a conglomerate of different songs melding to create a pondering backdrop about her personal passion and perspectives regarding merry ol’ England.
Every song on the album has something to say, whether it’s blatant sarcasm, beautifully sung disappointment or cleverly penned resentment. The politically washed “The Last Living Rose” doesn’t aim at war, but instead speaks of Harvey’s discontent with how the country traded its natural beauty for the greyness and griminess of industrialism and urbanism.
A direct aim at the horrors of war rises to the surface on “The Words That Maketh Murder,” where Harvey presents some rather colourful writing in similes that compare soldiers to meat, and in touches of romance regarding a soldier who longs to see a woman’s face after being in an “unearthly” place. The song ends with the question, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations,” knowing quite well from her tone that it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.
“England” is a short ode to the motherland, expressing Harvey’s love for the country, and the fact that it will always remain passionately in her blood even though it has let her down and left a “bitter taste” in her mouth.
Perhaps the most heartfelt song is “The Glorious Land” (which is accompanied by an opening of a bugle sounding and military-like drum rhythms which wonderfully set the mood and feel of the song) where she sings, “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/Its fruit is deformed children.”
“All and Everyone” is the most resounding track by far, however. As the longest piece on the album, its lyrics speak of death’s presence everywhere during the battle at Bolton’s Ridge from a soldier’s point of view. The song’s use of imagery and atmosphere is vivid and powerful, and paints a stark picture about Harvey’s hard-hitting intent and rapture about her chosen theme.
From a musical angle, the songs are rich in modern folk and indie rock, and are pushed forward with an acoustically aided guitar drive. Her voice is shrill and high at times, wavering and emotive in all the right places, and delivering some of these themes in a pleasantness that often plays as a polar opposite to the themes she’s singing about.
All of these elements imbue the album with a uniqueness and pleasurable, musical mysteriousness that has always hovered within the aura of her recordings. The electric touches she added here, however—as well as the gothic expressionism of the words and the mixture of instruments—give this album a dissimilarity to past PJ Harvey albums.
Let England Shake stands out in the forefront of her catalog because of its lyrical composure. It proves that Harvey can make a statement, make it count and make it last.