PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island)
March 1, 2011 by Hannah Lanfear
A diminutive siren, unattainable and urgently sexy, PJ Harvey is a force to be reckoned with. Her dulcet Somerset burr shelters a resonant and powerful singing voice; her prowess on the guitar is mighty. Since the release of debut single ‘Dress’ she has left an indelible mark on contemporary rock music combining raw physical allure with veracious musicianship. Her impact on music may be subversive yet her influence runs deep and fans are devout followers of her esoteric charms.
‘Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea’ saw her flirt coquettishly with the mainstream, but with her next long player she returned to territory better known with the visceral ‘Uh Huh Her’. Every album release revealed a new facet to her music as she constantly reinvented herself, ever developing, ever changing, bringing us to her latest release, ‘Let England Shake’.
Three weeks ago I heard a preview of the title track and, hoping for a song to take ahold of me, a ‘Perfect Day, Elise’ maybe, disappointingly felt nothing. The song as a stand alone track felt bland and meaningless. Disheartened I put on the new record and was proved emphatically wrong: this could be her best effort yet. In context the title track gained relevance and became completely different to me.
An ambitious, sophisticated album of towering importance, Harvey has achieved something unique, taking the subject of England’s history at war and rather than opining subjectively, she has artfully observed frightful matter of it, then laid it in the open air as if gutting a fish. In the hands of musicians, forays into political opinion can often leave a bitter taste in the mouth, but Harvey skirts the soapbox and creates a masterpiece in the process.
The railing electric guitar that ran through her early work, a fleshing of the bones of the early bluesmen, has given way to a softer approach yet her delivery is no less incisive. Untempered conviction flows forth. This is a Polly Jean with purpose beyond mere lyrical self reflection and in the drawing of a bigger picture become unimpeachable.
It is an album of juxtapositions. The dirt and grit of war seems at odds with the ethereal femininity of her voice. Bare, earnest horn sections swell throughout, with faint military ditties calling here and there. You can almost taste the earth of the battlefield, feel the rumble and threat of the cavalry. Occasional samples are heard once or twice, impertinently at odds with the music yet just right, all at once.
As a concept album the ambition was lofty yet unfalteringly achieved. This is a record not of our times yet certainly one of the most important records of our era, a thing of aching beauty, often grotesque, yet utterly perfect through and through.