PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
[Vagrant / Island, 2011]
Nick Torsell, March 1, 2011
Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath
Listen: “Written On The Forehead”
Growing up in one of the most famous rust belt cities in America has always driven me to Britain’s post World War fatalism. Like Buffalo’s rusted grain elevators, the charred ground of London left by German bombers are echoed in PJ Harvey’s new album Let England Shake, Harvey turns the anxiety of post war England into a V-Day stomp, celebrating the isolation and rejoicing in the crumbling factory walls.
Harvey begins the album namesake “Let England Shake” with the pitter-patter of xylophone or glockenspiel, I can never tell, and then sings as if she’s mouthing the words into a cannon, “The West’s asleep/Let England Shake.” This is, above everything else, a love letter to England. From the drunks lining the bar to the dirty rivers and grey clouds signaling the beginning of the day, Harvey revels in the things others hate. By the time the listener catches up with the rollicking back beat of LES, she rips it out, replacing it with a spare echoing drum and her forceful voice declaring her love for England on “Last Living Rose.”
Harvey’s voice has always been her strength, the thing that lets critics and fans place her on a pedestal. There’s a certain quiver in her voice that makes my knees quake. This album deals with big topics, war, patriotism, her country, but it still feels very personal. You can feel the wind whipping at her back, forcing a few strains of hair skyward as she coos sweet filth in your ear. “In The Dark Places” builds slowly, beginning with slapping water on her face to wake up, and setting up crosses across the open field, then ends without conclusion, “So our young men hid/ with guns, in the dirt/ and in the dark places.”
There’s a feeling in this album of running away from something you don’t really want to run away from. The people in the album have been chased, forced off by someone else’s battle. On “Written on the Forehead” Harvey stops to talk to man hunched over a generator, “Baby, see/Said war is here in our apartment/let it sleep.” This isn’t bumper sticker protest music; this is focused on the people war effects, and the parts of the life they’ve lost. Whether it’s their home, their son, or their life, Harvey lets their stories breath, bathed in jangling guitars and hollow percussion. It’s a nice way to go out.