Let England Shake
By Charlie Larson
With horns calling out in the distance you can hear the cavalry coming.
A continuously low rumble, a steady rhythm pushing forward as reverberated guitars ring throughout the trenches.
Be ready for the front lines of war as once again PJ Harvey succeeds in taking a new direction with her latest triumph, Let England Shake.
Upon first listen, Let England Shake felt like an introverted album – the kind that secludes you to your room feeling heavyhearted, despondent, and like an emotional pin cushion.
It didn’t take long to realize the obvious war theme that haunts each song. Lyrics sound like personal stories about the destruction of battle, frightening sights that have been seen, or the hope and longing to be back home.
This feeling of personal torment and open, unhealed wounds I felt initially, though, became less invasive and more poetic and with a second listen.
With help from producer Flood and long-time colleagues John Parish and Mick Harvey, PJ creates a consistent dynamic of reverberated guitars, horns, Rhodes, and an array of percussion that becomes the perfect palate for an album full of poetically heavy lyrics.
The title track immediately made me wonder if I was listening to the main hook from The Four Lads “Istanbul Not Constantinople.” Along with this initial pop melody, the instrumentation and production is gloomy, dark, and eerie. A jangling guitar and piano keep simplicity and leave room for a bass drum that booms like a cannon. Subtle horns add a slight jazzy accent that at times feels like a funeral dance number, regardless of a proclamation from Harvey that “England’s dancing days are done.” With a beat that moves like this, I tend to disagree.
The sights and sounds of war continue with the first single, “The Words That Maketh Murder.”This guitar driven death anthem tells of seeing “soldiers fall like lumps of meat” and “arms and legs in the trees.” An American blues influence definitely stands strong; the repetition of chord changes from the guitars to a middle breakdown proves Harvey’s songwriting is classic yet still fresh and original. The harmony between Mick Harvey and John Parish singing, “What if I take my problem to the United Nation” definitely adds to the American blues influence and brings the idea of a childhood sing-along. Although the instrumentation from beginning to end is consistent – from the guitar tones to funeral-esque horns to the cries of sorrow – dynamics are not lost.
The folk rock “England” begins with Harvey singing a tale of loving home and country, accompanied by only an acoustic guitar. The song slowly builds with a rumbling of toms toms and Rhodes underneath which Harvey’s cries of a “bitter taste” of betrayal left by her country are hair-raisingly beautiful.
The last half of the album feels a bit more delicate with songs like “Hanging In The Wire.”A piano gently bounces back and forth hand in hand with subtle soft percussive hi hats and drum beats. As dreamy as this song is, it still has a calm energy. A high registered Harvey sings beautifully, yet faintly, which at times feels like a soothing lullaby – yet among this beautiful calm there are words sung of wastelands, no grass, no trees, and “a far off symphony to hear the guns beginning.” Another example of a beautiful contrast of dynamics that could easily be left on repeat.
With every listen to Let England Shake, I find more details that make my initial feelings of an introverted album seem completely wrong.
From beginning to end, the instrumentation has a simplicity that I find brilliant and in perfect balance with Ms. Harvey’s emotionally heavy lyrics and beautiful delivery.
Without question, the lyrics stand strong as poetry and are a highlight of the album. The way Harvey sings each song with what seems to be a slightly different persona only adds intrigue and intimacy.
In short, Let England Shake is a completely fantastic record that marries a brilliant pop feel with a powerful, emotionally heavy war-theme.