As a result of an almost apocalyptic oversight, P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake was never properly covered on this blog. One of the perks of missing out on the Rapture is having extra time to look back and reflect on some of the things that I’ve forgotten over the year. Let England Shake deserves consideration by anyone left behind on Rapture Day and a spot on the playlist of anyone waiting around for the Mayans to take their revenge a year from now.
Opening with a nod to Thomas Davis, Polly Jean sings, “The West’s asleep, let England shake. Weighted down with silent dead, I fear our blood will rise again.” Her choice of opening the album with an autoharp brings us back some of the instrumentation she’s employed on Uh Huh Her and White Chalk. While her approach to every album feels radically different, it’s nice to have some sense of sonic continuity beyond her voice.
But she really goes out on a limb on Let England Shake. Themes like war, history and imperialism are minefields for songwriters. Too often artists reach beyond their talents as they chase large themes. Harvey manages to comfortably paint the big picture by focusing on small narratives and characters. Her grasp of the personal and the political is flawless, and I would argue that her songwriting has never been better.
In terms of a thematic structure, the album is full of reflections on war, death and destruction. The imagery is dark (as usual), but there’s a richness that saturates the album. The vignettes connect the idea of a nation with agricultural production to the reproduction of civilization and senseless death of soldiers. The lines between nation, land, production and people are blurred through the lens of war.
But it’s not all dark. The album is ripe with images of renewal through the land and nature.
Mostly focused on World War I, Let England Shake brings me crashing back to thoughts of Iraq and Afghanistan, which (quite honestly) I have done a good job of forgetting about over the last couple of years. The anger is refreshing.
Somewhere my rage, which blossomed during my college years, was dulled by the many distractions of daily life and a media that has moved away from the war(s) in which they were gleefully complicit. In that sense, Let England Shake was a welcomed and refreshing reminder.
There isn’t a single misstep on this album. Her string of solo albums is staggering (from Dry to White Chalk) so the level of polish here shouldn’t shock anyone. She bounces from blues to rock to the apocalyptic ravings of Will Oldham and all over the musical map on Let England Shake, but most importantly, her craft has never been stronger. Let England Shake is a fantastic album that everyone should enjoy.
PJ Harvey // Let England Shake [mp3] from Let England Shake