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Album Review
Let England Shake

Let England Shake
by PJ Harvey


Review Date
16th February 2011
Reviewed by
Courtney Sanders

Let England Shake is an all-encompassing tomb. There’s the video collaborations with documentary photographer Seamus Murphy, England and it’s antithetical involvement in war throughout history as theme, and then there’s the music itself; a rich and eclectic compilation of traditional folk elements syncopated to Harvey’s unique poetic sensibilities. With her latest full length, the seminal recording artist has not only produced a body of work that takes her audience on a multi-sensory journey, but she has entered a new phase of creative exploration.

PJ Harvey has handled the web exceptionally well this time around. From the initial rumours of an impending release, we were privy to streams and downloads of tracks ‘Let England Shake’, ‘The Last Living Rose’ and ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’, which were followed by a drip-feed videos, all by documentary (mostly war) photographer Seamus Murphy. Yes, the promotion of Let England Shake has utilized the democratic nature of said medium successfully, which is absolutely appropriate, considering the subject matter at hand. On Let England Shake Harvey is concerned with war, and England’s involvement, from Empirical oppressor to Allied saviour. While this is arguably a protest album, Harvey, as always, rather than battling her themes head-on, explores the emotional and almost unidentifiable horror events such as these create. She has then, as a multi-disciplinary artist, married the aforementioned ideas – conflict, liberation, democracy – with both a visual narrative, and an approach to release that both support and progress said ideas. Rather than the contemporary platform being an impediment to a multi-medium experience, it has allowed Harvey to exaggerate the experience.

But Harvey’s prowess as a multi-disciplinarian is a side-note to her ability to marry poetic subject matter (apparently lyrics are always penned first) to an appropriate sonic experience. If a pop ballad is what is called for, as with Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (mostly), a pop ballad is what one will get. However, for the main part – particularly on more recent albums Uh Huh Her and White Chalk – Harvey splits her time between aggressive staccato wails and restrained emotive drawls. Let England Shake follows these records; it subtly peaks and ebbs across the dozen tracks taking the occasional stark, directional U-turn when called for – particularly on single ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’. Considering the subject matter the songstress has invited traditional military instrumentation – bugles, trumpets (a part of ‘The Last Post’ appears, solemnly wrapped around Harvey’s wail in ‘In Battleship Hill’) into a classical folk approach. Acoustic guitar, harpsichord, piano, and meek, melancholic vocals accompany these thematic indicators throughout. There are a couple of somewhat standout tracks – and those that have won her fandom with an era of war veterans and sympathizers alike – including ‘The Last Living Rose’ (all classic, warbling PJ Harvey lamenting heroes past atop a bed of tambourine and horn) – and the aforementioned ‘Words That Maketh Murder’ - a mid-album track really hammering home the obvious contempt Harvey has for violence and aggression more generally. But this track also suggests the contradiction that Let England Shake is so expert in exploring: England’s dual wartime involvement as both oppressor and saviour. Where the album drops into instrumental melancholy one feels Harvey is suggesting lost lives of 18th Century Imperialism, where she screams, one feels she is screaming over the top of the violence that partners such oppression, and in more relaxed tracks one feels they have entered a post-WWII, fifties peacetime. The eclecticism of sound across the entire album only further suggests these contradictions – trumpets hidden in dark corners and metaphor nestled secretly beside melodic guitar and piano solos appear where least expected but also where most appropriate.

It’s not often that one extends their fan base with one of their more difficult albums to date, but by utilizing her skills as a multi-medium, multi-faceted storyteller, PJ Harvey has done just that, and deservedly so, with Let England Shake.


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