Saturday, December 17, 2011
Album Review: PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (4.5/5)
I have to say, the view from this bandwagon is looking pretty good.
When it was released in February, I decided to take a pass on PJ Harvey's Let England Shake. All I knew of her was her acclaimed 1995 album, To Bring You My Love, which I don't like. It's so nasty and growly sounding. Not my thing. So I assumed I wouldn't like this new album either. Even when it won the Mercury Prize, I still didn't get interested.
Well now everyone is naming it the album of the year, so I decided I should probably give it a listen. And I have to say...I love it. It's really great. And nothing like To Bring You My Love. Doesn't even sound like the same person, as she uses a completely different vocal style, singing in a higher register.
Needless to say, I haven't followed Harvey's career. Had I done so, I'd have known that one of her signatures is exploring different musical sounds on her albums, from the atmospheric electronica of Is This Desire? to the piano balladry of her last album, White Chalk.
There's no shortage of ambition on Let England Shake, an album about war, nations and England. And when I say "war," she's not just singing about the modern wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but about history too, including World War I. And when she's sings about England, there are criticisms, but there is love there too. The opening of "The Last Living Rose" is particularly well written:
"Goddamn' Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England and the grey, damp filthiness of ages, fog rolling down behind the mountains, and on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains."
In the span of just one verse there's humor, of a very English sort, beauty, grime and death. How quite poetic. "The Glorious Land" continues the theme of nations, critical of England (and its trans-Atlantic partner in all things globalism) for "farming" its land not with plows and grain but with tanks and orphaned children. Dark stuff, but it's also beautiful song with a bouncy melody punctuated with the cavalry bugle charge. The love/hate nationalism returns strongly on "England," a gentle, sad song on which she sings about her homeland, "you leave a taste, a bitter one...to you, England, I cling. Undaunted, never failing love for you..."
She sings from a soldier's point of view on "The Words That Maketh Murder," describing seeing "soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief." "All and Everyone" is a lovely ballad; its opening notes remind me of Keane's "A Bad Dream," incidentally another song about war. Some research will reveal the song's subject: The Battle of Lone Pine, a 1915 fight between Australia and Turkey as part of the World War I Gallipoli campaign in what was then called the Ottoman Empire. Again the lyrics are grim: "Death's anchorage: when you rolled a smoke or told a joke, it was in the laughter and drinking water." That Downton Abbey's second season shifted the story into WWI couldn't have been better timed.
Googling some of the album's many unique references can turn up quite a history lesson. But what is Harvey's lesson? Clearly she's not a warmonger. Rather quite the opposite, as she sings about the costs of war, namely loss and destruction, such as on the stirring title track that opens the album with a kinetic melody composed of xylophone and autoharp. It's easy to ignore these grim lyrics and just let the gentle, soothing tune wash over you. Closing track, "The Colour of the Earth," has a gentle rolling melody, even though its another soldier's point of view story about losing a friend during battle. In "Hanging on the Wire," the album's gentlest tune, she sings of a "smashed up waste ground" with no foliage but "unburied ghosts." Since I'm usually not a lyrics guy, I enjoy the tunes immensely, but I found the lyrics to be interesting, and they do make quite an impact.
So a Harvey convert I now am. I'm definitely planning on checking out her 2000 album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, which is apparently about New York City, as well as England, and also more mainstream than her other work. Along with To Bring You My Love, it's considered another highlight. I'm looking forward to it. I expect it will be totally different from this.
Best: Let England Shake, The Glorious Land, The Last Living Rose, All and Everyone, The Words that Maketh Murder, England, The Colour of the Earth