“The key to Let England Shake is that you must think something when you walk away from it”: the remarkable album is out this week, on Vagrant.”
By A.D. Amorosi
[Ed. note: the text below is adapted from our forthcoming, exclusive interview with PJ Harvey, so be watching for it.]
There is, as always, PJ Harvey’s usual brand of slaughter in the air throughout Let England Shake – the bloody pulp and circumstance of soldiers falling like lumps of meat; the drunken beatings; even the way dinars get thrown around seems hostile. But there’s protest in the wind here as well, a heated place that Harvey’s howl has never hit up previously, as England‘s windswept motion and coolly politicized mien is less directly personal than it was throughout corrosive back-catalog highlights.
It was recorded virtually live and quietly with Harvey stalwarts Mick Harvey, John Parrish and such, and what’s odd is how songs such as “Written on the Forehead” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” are as confrontational and aggressive as any in her past, yet here find themselves hung upon a higher softer coo and tender cushiony melodies. That comes from a first for Harvey: she started Let England Shake with the words, writing and singing them to herself, unaccompanied. Those words inspired where the melody would go, and that openness is heard from the click and yawn of “The Last Living Rose” to the crinkle of “The Colour of the Earth.” Not having an instrument to lean on when writing then speaking/singing the words meant that she’d reached into very different melodic airy areas that she might usually have avoided or simply never knew existed.
The key to Let England Shake is that you must think something when you walk away from it. It’s her least passive listen. For all its saxophone’s honk (the only low end here), floating high-voiced whispers and thrumming autoharp-filled tones touched by oddly funny sampled riffs (“Istanbul, Not Constantinople”? Really?!?), the boldest vision within its stark white walls – her choice in cover art – is that Harvey has finally opened herself up to the un-scrubbed society at large; the political ramifications of war and the ages-old ruminations on peace. The idea that murder can be doubly and deeply personal whether you’re bloodily slaughtering hundreds or violently stabbing a lover. That God is in the details, whether it’s “The Glorious Land” or the “Bitter Branches” she’s singing of. That violence is leveled even when it’s the toss of a hand or the whisk of a command. That her country is in ruins and that maybe all countries around her are little more than that.
Things are bad. Worse than they were when she was whipping her hair around her face screaming “Sheela-Na-Gig” back in ‘92.
[Photo Credit: Seamus Murphy]