PJ Harvey's Let England Shake: Track-By-Track Review
, January 19th, 2011 11:23
A second straight masterpiece for PJ Harvey, following the sublime White Chalk? Alex Denney reckons so as he delivers the verdict on Let England Shake
Let England Shake
The title-track sets out the record's stall as entrenched in a deliberate, poetic mode that takes the temperature of the times even while it swirls with ambiguity. Dirgey strums of autoharp introduce this nervous-sounding track, before Harvey makes a sweeping vocal entrance: "The West's asleep, let England shake / Weighted down with silent dead / I fear our blood will rise again." You don't write opening gambits like that — or indeed call your album things like Let England Shake — unless you're bang on top of your game, so with the stakes suitably raised, let's see how she gets on, shall we?
The Last Living Rose
On which Harvey sings of England's "stinking alleys" and the "graveyards of old sea captains" over a faintly grungy, palm-muted chord progression and a treasure chest-rattle of percussion. The song takes us "past the Thames river, glistening / Like gold hastily sold for nothing — NOTHING!", a subtle and brilliant evocation that also provides a happy excuse for a brief, baritone sax solo. What's not to love about this track?
The Glorious Land
Opens with bugle calls and a lithe, twisting bassline that sounds like sea snakes in motion, before guitar adds to the overall aquatic feel, which is almost shoegazey in tone. Vocally it's a call-and-response affair ingeniously linking war with our agricultural heritage: "How is our glorious country ploughed? Not with iron ploughs / The land is ploughed with tanks and feet." Then, a chilling finale: "What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is orphan children." This is a second straight ace and another seamless lyric that completely justifies Harvey's decision to spend so much time with the words for the record — put simply, it's a pleasure to see such obvious effort being made in the service of ideas as good as this.
The Words That Maketh Murder
Again with the thin, dreamy guitar — perhaps Vini Reilly's a useful reference? Stabs of brass, a cooing delivery from Harvey and John Parish's refrain of "These, these, these are the words that maketh murder" add up to a kind of diabolical mischief; a wicked augury of war dripping with obscene imagery of "flesh quivering in the heat" and soldiers "falling like meat". Then a final insult in the shape of the track's coda refrain: "What if I take my problem to the United Nations", presumably referencing the resolution that never was in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Once again, this is first-rate material.
All And Everyone
Delicate church organs and sparse strumming combine to create a funereal tone which gives way to urgent verses about fighting on old fronts, hinting at a sort of ectoplasmic architecture linking past and present as on 'The Glorious Land'. It's not the most compelling tune on here, and Harvey's maybe guilty of laying on the death imagery a bit thick at times, but the track retains a certain supernatural power.
On Battleship Hill
Again it would seem the past's invading the present, with Harvey singing of "the scent of time carried on the wind" as brushed drums and a sliver of guitar give the song eerie momentum.She's pushing her voice to its sheet-thin upper registers here, sounding haunted in ways that recall White Chalk. Some of the imagery is pretty stunning, too: "Jagged mountains jutting out / Cracked like teeth in a rotting mouth".
Harvey keens wordlessly over an acoustic guitar while 'doubled' by middle eastern chanting in the background. Whatever her reasons for eulogising her native turf on this record, she's keen to remind us of the wider world, it would seem. The words are worth quoting at length: "I live and die through England, through England / It leaves a sadness / Remedies never work / Within my reach, I cannot go on as I am / Withered vine, reaching from the country that I love." Then she sings "England, you leave a taste / A bitter one", as her voice rises sublimely and Harvey pledges her love in fine, acrobatic style.
In The Dark Places
A typical small-hours gloom descends over this stealthy, blues-dappled track as Harvey ponders what unpleasantness might be lurk in the nation's hedgerows: "Are your men hid with guns / In the dirt, in the dark places?"
Skittering drum rolls and clenched power chords that speak to a barely concealed anger, this one sounds a bit like 'Kamikaze' off Stories From The City... . There are moments on this record where you can almost feel Harvey's amazement at people laying down their lives for a notion as abstract and intangible as nationhood, before succumbing to the similar feelings herself, and wondering what the fuck it's all about. Or something. For example, on this track we've got wives' arms portrayed as 'bitter branches' as they wave their husbands off on tours of duty, which is one of a handful of images on the record tying people irrevocably to the plot of land that spat them out.
Hanging In The Wire
Another sort of lyrical double-take, this time with a Wainwright-esque fell walker surveying the terrain and seeing not hillsides, but a barren no-man's land with corpses littering the barbed wire meshes. Musically the melody is very old-school folky, given a skeletal, shockingly beautiful arrangement for piano and Harvey's hushed vocal. A highlight.
Written On The Forehead
A richly symbolic, desert mirage of a track drawing on Niney the Observer's reggae classic 'Blood & Fire' and the book of Revelations (what else?), guitar glittering like sun on water as some outlandish, vaguely mystical imagery is unveiled: "People throwing dinars at the belly-dancers / In a sad circus by a trench of burning oil".
The Colour Of The Earth
John Parish takes a starring role on the closing track, a folk-tinged lament for the fallen at the Battle of the Nek, a disastrous WWI engagement which left nearly 400 Australian cavalrymen dead. Interestingly no British troops were involved in the combat, but then again without the Commonwealth no bugger would have been around that day to be slaughtered. Is there a point to all this? Not sure.
Like gazing into a shallow pool and seeing a world that's radically altered yet somehow the same, Let England Shake should leave you entranced for months to come. It's a second straight masterpiece from Harvey, whose creative stock is surely at an all-time high after the bold and exceptionally beautiful White Chalk, and precisely the kind of mature blossoming we don't hear enough of in rock/pop/whatever nowadays. We look forward massively to hearing what she comes up with next.