February 13, 2011

Album Review: PJ Harvey's Let England Shake

As a musician who rose to success during the Gen-X boom of the '90s, PJ Harvey has quietly remained one of the few constants in alternative rock ever since. The last we heard from the English-born songwriter was 2007's piano-driven White Chalk, and previous to that, the lo-fi affair of 2004's Uh Huh Her. Now on her 8th studio album, Let England Shake, PJ Harvey returns with a rumble of delicate thunder on what will surely be remembered as one of her best -- and boldest -- albums ever. Produced and recorded with an alt-rock motley crew featuring Flood, Mick Harvey (The Bad Seeds) and longtime collaborator, John Parish, PJ Harvey removes herself far from the style of last decade's outputs and leaves no corner of Let England Shake undiscovered with detailed sound. It also happens to be Harvey's most vocal political statement yet, targeting British politics alongside ongoing war games in the Middle East. Harvey has always been a brooding soul, swallowing her music up in darkness and mystery, but this time she uses her unsettled voice, ominous words and morbid sound to paint a grim portrait of her native country. Album opener, the gothic cabaret title track, declares "England's dancing days are done..." while being absorbed by a jangly collection of xylophones, guitars and horns. Standout, "The Last English Rose" practices simpler restraint until the 1:00 mark where a dark, bluesy sax and low-key guitar riff take control as Harvey quivers about England's "grey, damp filthiness of ages" and "stinking alleys." As stark and depressing as it may all read lyrically, there is an enjoyable beauty perched in PJ's premonitions of an impending Apocalypse-like scenario. "In the Dark Places" and "Written On the Forehead," for example, are two powerful tracks that address modern war's affect on humanity with stories inspired by testimonies of troops and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the former being a mid-tempo song building towards an electrical climax while the latter glows in Harvey's submerged vocals and samples reggae classic, "Blood and Fire" by Niney the Observer. Outside the album's graphic political undertones, Let England Shake is one of PJ Harvey's greatest creative triumphs to date. A small touch like the offsetting trumpet blaring its way through "The Glorious Land" or piano keys cracking their way into the soundscape of "Hanging In the Wire" make otherwise well-written songs become something of uniquely different value. Let England Shake ultimately reverberates in PJ Harvey's perspective of angry, critical emotions, but as grim a future the songstress depicts as she likens her native land to a dying rose, you can't help but find beauty in England's thorns when presented this way.

PJ Harvey's Let England Shake will be released February 15, 2011 on Vagrant Records.

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