Thursday, 8 December 2011

Album Review: PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

With her eight studio album, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, not only marks her fourth Mercury Music Prize nomination, and second win, but also puts her alongside Radiohead as the most nominated artist in the history of the awards. No mean feat.

Released in February 2011, the album is the follow-up to 2007’s ethereal, piano-led album White Chalk. Using Iraq, Afghanistan and Gallipoli as reference points, Harvey reportedly spent years researching these different conflicts to construct the lyrical content of the album.

References to war and England’s destruction are integral to every song on this album. ‘Let England Shake’ opens with Polly’s echo-ey vocals declaring, rather depressingly, “England’s dancing days are done”. The rambling xylophone adds to the eerie, quiet tones and delivers a muffled punch to the chorus.

Harvey began the construction of the album using an autoharp and its lush string sound can be heard emanating throughout, particularly in ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘The Colour of the Earth’. The album also uses a lot of layered guitar sounds which add richness in contrast to the stark, often gruesome, lyrics. Not content with punctuating the gorgeous sound with war-torn lyrics, Harvey uses other means to prick the listener out of the dreamy sound. In ‘The Glorious Land’ a building intro is matched with bursts of the army’s ‘regimental march’ bugle call.

Her vocals teeter between soft and eerily girlish on some tracks, to a slight desperate, quiet hysteria in songs like ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’.  Compared to the rock-banshee, and rich deep tone she has used in previous albums (White Chalk excluded) it seems she has taken on a softer voice to let the words do the damage. In, ‘Hanging in the Wire’ her soft vocals trill “there are no birds singing on the white cliffs of Dover”. Vera Lynn for a new generation she is not.

Some obscure samples are put into the mix, with a distorted vocal from Said El Kurdi (yep, never heard of him either) in ‘England’ and an almost reggae-sounding chant of “let it burn, let it burn” in ‘Written on the Forehead’.

Let England Shake is altogether a more subdued, less-in-your-face affair than her previous creations, yet the tapestry of the lyrics are closer knit and woven into rich layers of sound, only to be singled out again against stark guitar or brass section solo’s. Rather than a punch in the nuts, these songs creep into the subconscious, luring you in, and then silently attacking with words, evoking gut-wrenching imagery, “seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat. Arms and legs were in the trees”. 

The endless layers in this album, and not to mention the timeless theme of war, are what will keep me coming back for more time and time again. 

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