Snap Sounds: PJ Harvey


Let England Shake

It’s not really a subtle couplet, “Weighted down with silent dead/ I fear our blood won’t rise again,” but with it the title track for PJ Harvey’s newest offering Let England Shake sets the stage for the songs to come. A surprisingly melodic exploration of the still reverberating effects of World War I on England’s shores and English mores, Let England Shake is both a call to arms and a plea to lay them down again. And despite its deliberate focus on atrocities past, the album can’t help but to implicate all current and future wars within its narrow rifle scope.

At the core of every song in the collection lies a degraded yet determined Britannia, plowed with “tanks and feet,” shot down, blown apart, bitter, bloodied, and bowed. Yet despite the ignominy, it’s a land that inspires almost absurd loyalty -— in the singer as well as the soldier. “I live and die through England,” Harevey confesses on the song “England,” as if she can’t quite believe it herself, “to you…I cling.” It’s hard to imagine an American rock star pledging allegiance to any state on that soul-baring level, and it’s part of what makes Let England Shake a fascination for an American listener. Its uniquely British nationalism, built on a foundation of grief, defies direct translation.

The instrumentation is a melancholic mélange of spare, driving percussion with plenty of cymbals, reined-in, jangling guitar riffs, an autoharp, subtle layers of piano, occasionally awkward brass, and a cornucopia of extras: a xylophone here, a zither there. On the album’s third song, “The Glorious Land,” the clarion call of a war bugle insinuates itself into the otherwise stripped-down drum and guitar track while Harvey’s clear voice swoops through, a flock of startled birds surrounded by the muck of war.

Harvey stretches her register to its upper limit on track six, “On Battleship Hill,” leaving all traces of her trademark low gravel behind with a clarion call of her own. On songs such as “The Last Living Rose” and “In the Dark Places,” Harvey drapes herself not only in her flag but in soldier’s drag, evoking the hopeless trenches and “damned mountains” as if observing them first-hand. The album is not without flaws, a seemingly random sampling of Niney the Observer’s roots-reggae jam “Blood and Fire” on “Written on the Forehead” does the original no justice, and the sing-song quality of “England” jars somewhat after the considerably more powerful “On Battleship Hill,” but overall, Let England Shake stands out as a cohesive ode to a complicated love.

PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake" (from Let England Shake):

Also from this author

  • Bee true

    The documentaries of Berlin and Beyond

  • Divining the entrails

    New Last Gasp releases explore the unsettling art of Laurie Lipton and Elizabeth McGrath

  • The Performant: Epochalypse Now