It’d be easy to file Let England Shake
as a political missive—an accessible but dense album of musings about the state of our world through the lens of Harvey’s home country England. Yet, PJ Harvey’s continual (and in many ways insatiable) desire to reinvent both her persona and music make classifications exceedingly difficult. She does not seek to push the limits of her catalog but wholly redefine it, experimenting with vocal techniques, varied instrumentation or poetic structures that both destabilize her oeuvre while creating new spaces in which to exist. So, the question of “Who is PJ Harvey?” is best answered in liminal terms, because just when you think you’ve figured her out, she rewrites the rules, and you find yourself using an already obsolete language in trying to keep up with her.
Harvey spent over two years writing the lyrics for Let England Shake, marking a tremendous shift in her career towards a primary focus on poetry. Before Harvey attempted to construct any music or melody, she made certain that each song worked on its own as a concrete poem. Important to note is how her lyrics transition from the extreme raw emotional arena (as seen on White Chalk
) to a new universal approach. Inhabiting the role of the observer/correspondent, Harvey initiates the process of unsettling the listener by introducing subject matter previously restricted from her catalog: war vis-à-vis politics, international conflict and heightened notions of nationalism.
She opens the record with the line, “The West’s asleep / Let England shake, weighted down with silent dead. I fear our blood won’t rise again.” On paper, this lyric appears pugnacious and virulently confrontational, as if it belonged to the rhetoric of an antiwar and anti-imperialist movement. However, Harvey sings over a surprisingly cheery autoharp and bouncy drums; even the melody is lively and playful—exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from the lyrics. In these first thirty seconds, Harvey enacts both the shallowness and depth of Let England Shake
. Juxtaposition of music and lyrics that appear ill-fitting is in neither a novel practice nor a terribly difficult one, and this revelation of sorts gives the impression of “shallowness” to the album. However, in true to form Harvey brilliance, the ostensible triviality of lyric/music contradiction is merely a masquerade—a pastiche that upon further investigation reveals hidden pathways that don’t end in any one final judgment. Rather, Let England Shake
is riddled with ambiguity that denies the listener a concrete assertion of what any one song is truly about. Even with words as basic as the title “Let England Shake,” there’s no right or wrong interpretation. In fact, it’s the multifarious nature of unhinged interpretation that situates the listener in an eventual “no man’s land,” echoed astutely in the lyrics of “Hanging in the Wire.” It’s exactly this skillful application of dichotomy that makes Let England Shake
Harvey also subverts the listener from labeling Let England Shake
as a modern-day anti-war epistle through the use of references to war and violence that span the last hundred years. While she removed the Four Lads’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” sample from the title track, its melody is jauntily played by John Parish on the xylophone at the opening of the album. Then, in “The Glorious Land,” she mixes the “Reveille” military bugle with electric guitars and drums that rollick along, relentlessly beating forth to build into a rhythmic trance. “Written on the Forehead” prominently features the chorus from Niney the Observer’s 1970 hit “Blood and Fire.” And not only do the sampling choices provide temporal anachronisms; rather, many of Harvey’s lyrics reference historical events as well. On “The Colour of the Earth,” the line “Louis was my dearest friend / fighting in the Anzac trench” recalls a World War I battle in which both sides tried to seize Istanbul. “All and Everyone” features a gruesome scene of mass death on 400 miles of beachfront—ostensibly an allusion to D-day. And lastly, “On Battleship Hill” is a direct reference to the 1915 Battle of Chunuk Bair on the Gallipoli peninsula.
By interlacing many of the songs on Let England Shake
with stories of the past, Harvey effectively rejects writing from any one point of view. Even when she recalls World War I, she does so in a way that feels contemporary. She is able to reach the truths of the human condition in each scenario so that the lyrics feel timeless. Let England Shake
is also a beautifully paced album. The title track is downright bubbly, which then is tempered by the smoky guitar riff that opens “The Last Living Rose.” “Rose” is a pretty straight-forward pop song, but laced with lyrics like “Take my back to England / and the grey, damp filthiness of ages… on graveyards and dead sea captains.” It’s not exactly the most cheerful image, but the peppy drums, soothing guitar, catchy melody and buoyant saxophone solo bring great energy to the song. “The Glorious Land” is a highlight of the record—a perfect interweaving of drums, guitar, and Rhodes keyboard that provide an entrancing musical backdrop, as Harvey and company engage in a call-and-response chorus structure, singing “What is the glorious fruit of our land? / Its fruit is deformed children!” It’s compelling and downright spooky, surging forward unrelentingly into the exquisite climax at the end.
“The Words that Maketh Murder” is quick to become a PJ Harvey classic, sitting among fellow singles such as “A Perfect Day Elise,” “Dress,” “Good Fortune” and “Down by the Water,” all indicative of some of her best and most timeless work. The interplay of autoharp, drums and hand claps engages the listener from the outset, and then comes the instantly catchy melody of the chorus. “Murder” is also an excellent example of Harvey’s use of male voices to counter and complement her own, evident across all of Let England Shake.
The male chorus singing “these, these, these are the words, the words that maketh murder” sounds like a children’s incantation, at points taunting and sinister. Harvey then recalls “The Glorious Land” when she leads the group of voices in singing “death lingering, stunk / Flies swarming everyone / Over the whole summit peak / Flesh quivering in the heat / This was something else again / I fear it cannot be explained.” Harvey’s intonation imbues the lyrics with added menace, while the music and rhythm of the words invite the listener to move and sway in concert with the pulse of the song. She then finishes the song with the increasingly ambiguous line, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” It’s at one moment accusatory, alarming and threatening, and at another somewhat cowering and fearful. The fact that Harvey can, in the span and delivery of one line, evoke so many different emotions is yet again evident of her songwriting prowess.
“On Battleship Hill” is another major highlight of the album. In all truth, this is something we really have never heard from PJ Harvey before. The way she manipulates her voice on the song is remarkable. She opens with the line “The scent of thyme carried on the wind / Stings my face into remembering / Cruel nature has won again,” and the backing music all but falls away, exposing her haunting and intensely beautiful vocal. She climbs into her high register with crystalline clarity. Piercing through the highest note with confidence that retains a level of fragility, she makes the listener wonder if she can pull off such a difficult ascent. Harvey does it with poise and ease that indicate her ability to embrace dynamic shifts in her voice and push the limits of what was deemed possible. The music then kicks back in for a rousing verse, mixing Harvey’s voice floating high above the male vocal mirror.
In “On Battleship Hill,” Harvey continues to address the wind as a symbol of restless, unyielding harshness. While the song references the 1915 battle of Chunuk Bair, violence wielded at the hands of men is mentioned obliquely. Instead, Harvey focuses on the shape of Battleship Hill and its piercing gusts of wind. She sings, “On Battleship Hill’s caved in trenches / a hateful feeling still lingers / even now, 80 years later / Cruel nature.” Clearly she evokes the history of war, but as a shadow—a pervasive scar written in the landscape of the hill. But her continual usage of the lyric “cruel nature” and/or “cruel nature has won again” is what complicates the reading of the song, because it’s unclear whether or not she’s addressing nature as the natural world or human nature. Is it the cruel nature of male-dominated violence that has forever altered the story of Battleship Hill? Or is it that cruel nature exists all around us, and we’re merely cogs in its pitiless system? Thus, Harvey thrusts the song into a nebulous space. By personifying the wind and having it deliver the final line “Cruel nature has won again,” it appears indicative of humankind’s actual insignificance in the cosmic arena, regardless of the answer to the song’s many questions. It’s a real tour de force for PJ Harvey, and arguably one of the best songs she has written in her career.
It’s difficult to isolate any one reason why Let England Shake
is such a fascinating album. It’s a collection of twelve songs that are multi-dimensional, incredibly well-crafted and downright radiant. It’s an album that investigates the role of war and humankind’s zeal for destruction, but it’s also an album that questions the very essence of our own systems of classification through which we derive meaning. What does it mean to be English? What does England represent metaphysically? Is it even important?
Twenty years into her illustrious career, PJ Harvey has hit yet another career high. It’s increasingly rare that such exceptional work is made this deep in an artist’s trajectory, but Harvey has always pushed the limits and rewritten the rules with each of her albums. Let England Shake
is certainly a departure for her, but it in no way feels inauthentic. Rather, it’s an album that is timely in subject matter but timeless in sound, showcasing Harvey’s assiduousness and persistent attempts to find new ways to create art. Let England Shake is awe-inspiring, breathtaking and utterly magical-- a magnificent reminder that in the venue of rock music, PJ Harvey remains one of its strongest and most important voices.