It can be argued that over the course of her 20+ year career PJ Harvey has yet to make a bad album. Each release remains unique, challenging, provocative, and ultimately rewarding. Quite honestly, the same can't be said for other vanguards such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, REM, Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, Neil Young, etc., who have all had long careers as innovative artists yet have had their share of missteps along the way. Peers like Nick Cave have been equally consistent, yet I would still consider a bit more underground than PJ Harvey, who remarkably has remained a major-label artist throughout here career on the Universal-owned Island Records. But even the most ardent PJ Harvey fans may not be prepared for the startling and unsettling new album, Let England Shake.
Right from the first single “Written On the Forehead,” it is clear PJ Harvey is delving into new ground. The song describes a city decimated by conflict and warfare and the imagery is striking, summoning the lyrics “people throw belongings/a lifetime's earnings/amongst the scattered rubbish/and suitcases on the sidewalk” as the song floats into the ether on a sample from Niney the Observer's 1970 reggae cut “Blood and Fire” -- all the while repeating the words "let it burn." Heavy stuff, to say the least.
Let England Shake is a meditation on war and nationalism and could be considered Harvey's most political album to date. Yet her anger and frustration with her native England, as well as the world’s predilection for violence, is not delivered with the rage and bile found on past albums. This is not the ferocious and primitive PJ Harvey of Dry & Rid of Me nor the emotionally ravaged PJ Harvey of White Chalk. The songs seem to be channeled from the hereafter in a state of post-war shell-shock, sung in a high register that feels less dogmatic than angelic.
PJ Harvey revealed that while writing the material for the new album she listened to the music of The Doors, possibly to absorb their brand of pop music with a darker vision of humanity. If that is the case, the title cut is probably her “Strange Days,” a surreal, hypnotic yet oddly buoyant track that sets the tone for what is to come. Amidst the war and brutality she so poetically evokes, the music retains a certain beauty and grace, as illustrated in the simple, gorgeous piano refrain that enters midway through “On Battleship Hill.” Let England Shake is a complex, unforgettable, uncompromising yet somehow inspiring record from one of the most important artists of our time.
-- Dan Wilcox, KCRW Music Host
Let England Shake will be available to stream on demand from Feb 7 through March 8, 2011. The album will be released on Tuesday February 15, 2011.
Listen to an archived performance of PJ Harvey on Morning Becomes Eclectic, November 2, 2007.
Artist website: http://www.pjharvey.net
1. Let England Shake
2. The Last Living Rose
3. The Glorious Land
4. The Words That Maketh Murder
5. All & Everyone
6. On Battleship Hill
8. In The Dark Places
9. Bitter Branches
10. Hanging In The Wire
11. Written On The Forehead
12. The Colour Of The Earth