Prolific English songstress PJ Harvey is well known for having dark and somber themes throughout her music. Her 2007 album White Chalk for example, contained veiled references to abortion, suicide and drug abuse. Now In her eighth studio album Let England Shake, Harvey goes for the gusto by creating a lyrical narrative of the horrors of the First World War. Weaving together careful research and apocalyptic lyrics to plumb the depths of one of the single worst blows to the collective British psyche in their entire history. From top to bottom this album is packed full of historical references and poetic allegories of the conflict's horrendous savagery and terrible consequences.
Whether it be the grisly mire of the trenches (“The Words That Maketh Murder”), the muddy nightmare of No-Man's-Land (“Hanging In The Wire”) or the devastation wrought by the massive battles on some of the most fertile lands in Europe (“Glorious Land”). And that's just for starters. The bloody fiasco of Gallipoli and the campaign against the Ottoman Turks are given no less than three specific mentions, most notably in “On Battleship Hill.” There are homesick laments from the trenches and sorrowful remembrances of those “lucky” enough to survive. Patriotic anthems and songs of valour however, are conspicuously absent. Harvey is unambiguous in her stance. The sacrifices were empty, the victory hollow and the cause not worth the bloodshed. All that's left to do now is try to find the poetry in the horror.
Musically speaking Let England Shake is an interesting medley of styles and genres. Yes it is unmistakably an indie-rock album but other musical influences are clearly felt. Harvey's vocals are closer to jazz than rock. The traditional folk music of the British Isles definitely had an impact on the composition of songs like “Glorious Land” and “On Battleship Hill”. There is also an unmistakable hint of Latin influence in many of the acoustic guitar tracks. World music even makes a surprising appearance on several tracks, while the Caribbean vibes and male vocals on the album's final track “Colour of the Earth” make it seem closer to a Clash song than some of Harvey's previous work.
Let England Shake is an interesting and certainly unique musical experience. Certainly it has a few faults. Most of the songs possess a similar sombre, dirge quality to them which those listeners who aren't fond of that particular approach could find boring and slightly repetitive. Similarly I found that the warbling singing style Harvey adopted for this album got a bit a grating on one or two tracks. “England” being the most notable example. These faults are minor however and largely dependent on personal taste. Simply put this album is just damn good. It is a truly intriguing musical effort from a consistently innovative artist. Harvey has a darkly sultry voice which drew me in, even when she is singing about people being torn to pieces by machine gun fire. The musical accompaniment is excellent and diverse. Most importantly the subject matter is thoughtful and compelling, easily setting Let England Shake apart from the myriad of indie offerings from across the pond.