I must admit that I’ve never really appreciated PJ Harvey. Sure I’ll listen to her new stuff as it comes out, but I’m not sitting there salivating on release day to hear what she’s been up to. It’s just not the relationship that PJ and I have. The problem arises when I realize that I thouroughly enjoy everything I’ve heard by her. She has a fairly extensive catalogue dating back to 1992, and I’ve only listened to 4 of her albums, all sound different, but all scream PJ.
My first experience with PJ was back in the mid 90s when ‘Down by the Water’ was played every so often on Muchmusic. It was a haunting video with her swaying water dance but I was really just wondering if I found her attractive or not. After so many years I still don’t know if I find her attractive, but she’s got some killer legs that go a mile (see Q magazine, November 2001). Around that time, 2001 I mean, she had reached her height of popularity with Stories From The City Stories From The Sea, arguably her best album or at least most accessible, mostly raising her profile due to Thom Yorke guesting on a few tracks, the Radiohead factor being huge around that time.
But really, what we’re here to talk about is PJ’s new album, the most excellent Let England Shake. Simply put it’s a war album, or so I’ve heard it described. Following much of PJ’s previous albums, it sounds unlike anything we’ve heard from her before. Let England Shake is a powerful compendium of songs that showcases Harvey’s songwriting skills and ability to create something new and unique while practicing restraint and keeping to simple song structures.
The title track opener begins with some slick xylophone and mellotron courtesy of long time Harvey collaborator John Parish and then churns along with PJ singing of whether England will regain its once great standing in the world.
There’s that damn bugle sample again. Sure it seems out of place, but it gives ‘The Glorious Land’ that added military/regal sound. A lot of the album has random bursts of brass instruments that seem to represent the pomp attributed to marches and the military in general. Surprisingly almost all of these backing instruments are handled by the talented Parish and Mick Harvey, formerly of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, both also contribute backing vocals, most memorably with “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”, the addictive refrain on ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, the first single from the album.
‘Words’ is the immediately highlight of the album. Catchy and unique it sticks in your head, while delivering a message on failed diplomacy of the Afghan War and hinting allusions at earlier World Wars. The refrain, as mentioned above, is very addictive, and comes from Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’.
All of the songs on Let England Shake have their moment and it feels like an album where every song will be my favourite at one time or another. ‘In the Dark Places’ starts off slow, but builds throughout to encapsulate the trials of soldiers on the battle field. ‘Bitter Branches’ is the closest the album has to a ‘rock’ song and this track could fit in on one of PJ’s earlier, rockier albums.
I’ve listened to Let England Shake quite a few times over the last month and I’ve found that it is still growing on me. PJ may have released her grand opus with Let England Shake, as it is her most decisive artistic statement yet. Do yourself a favour and put on some tea, settle into the couch and take a listen. It may be a dark journey, but it is certainly worth it.