- Mon, 2011-02-14 13:00
PJ Harvey has long been known for her reticence to explain her lyrics, stating that once an album is out her part is done, and it’s up to the listener to bring their own meaning to the words. For her new album the reverse could not be truer; having taken two years to write the lyrics for Let England Shake, and then letting them completely dictate the trajectory of the music, that their meaning is unambiguous is vital for the album to fulfil its artistic ambition.
Let England Shake is an album about war, but, far from airing political, legal or ethical objections in a simple condemnation of the practice, it is a much more nuanced exploration of the topic. There is no single conflict under the microscope (though the WWI Battle of Gallipoli is alluded to on numerous occasions, most obviously on All & Everyone, Battleship Hill and The Colour Of The Earth), nor reference made to specific politicians or world leaders. Rather, the album laments the loss that a nation suffers when it goes to war, both in terms of its people and of its sense of identity.
The success of the lyrics varies. There are occasions when the words seem a tad clumsy, most noticeably in the outro of The Glorious Land, with its repetition of the line “what is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is deformed children.” However, in the overwhelming majority of cases Harvey’s words achieve their aim with subtlety and effectiveness, and on occasion - as with Written On The Forehead - their depiction of a scene startlingly vivid and moving.
Musically, Let England Shake falls somewhere between Harvey’s last album, White Chalk, and her work prior to that. The guitars of her older albums are back; sometimes strutting, sometimes strummed. So too is the brittleness of White Chalk, recreated here largely through the reprisal of the high, clean vocal that characterised that album, though it is now sporadically joined by John Parrish's male counterpart, more robust in tone. It is the way in which these two textures are fused, and the ingredients with which they are combined, that lend Let England Shake its very particular sound.
Harvey emphasises her lyrical content through a variety of methods, the most obvious of which is the inclusion of a brass band on a number of songs. The military heritage of the sound adds extra depth to the visions of war being presented, most explicitly in the bugle call that rings out at several points during The Glorious Land. Similarly, her use of an autoharp and the timbre of her voice evoke the folk music of pre-Industrial England and Ireland, the land for which she is expressing such a deep if troubled love. This latter technique is used with particular efficacy during the haunting, slow passages of On Battleship Hill, but also lurks beneath the surface of The Words That Maketh Murder’s curiously jaunty bounce, and sits side by side with troubled horns during All & Everyone’s sorrowful meander.
The album also incorporates a number of intriguing references to other pieces and genres of music. Let England Shake bases its jerky melody on that of The Four Lads’ Istanbul (Not Constantinople) in what is probably another oblique reference to the Battle Of Gallipoli, as well as adopting its shuffling rhythm by switching between 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures. England sees a simple, folksy guitar and vocal pitted against a woman singing what sounds like it may be an Arabic maqam accompanied by a Qanun; perhaps it is intended as an aural representation of the clash of cultures currently taking place in the Middle East. Finally, Written On The Forehead samples Niney The Observer’s classic reggae hit Blood & Fire, adopting its refrain “let it burn burn burn” as it drifts dreamily towards its close.
Harvey combines this disparate range of musical colours with great skill, creating a contoured and complex album that brings her eccentricities to the fore without allowing them to overpower. She expressly chose to compose music that offsets rather than compounds the heavy subject matter of the lyrics, resulting in a set of songs that are melancholy and intense but light, creating an impact without resorting to oppressive or claustrophobic soundscapes. Those that yearn for the return of PJ Harvey the pre-White Chalk rock chick will find little relief here, but those ready to embrace her bold experimentalism will find themselves rewarded by an album that is captivating, powerful and unique.