England - Full Moon 177 - 02/18/11
Let England Shake
Since Polly Jean Harvey entered the scene some 20 years ago with her debut album (Dry, 1992), she's been delivering a line of high quality albums. PJ never seems to fail. Let England Shake, her eight album, continues with gripping tales from England, about England and the English, from Harvey's point of view.
I played both Dry and Rid of Me (1995) a lot back in the days. Especially the latter; the raw, naked and brutal, Steve Albini-produced LP was a kicking and smacking all over experience. Over the years she has, well, not softened, but the rough and rioting stuff like Rid of Me has somewhat faded. Musically, not lyrically, that is. In many ways PJ Harvey is a musical blend of Captain Beefheart and Kate Bush. She's got the off-piste blues feel, which is quite often topped with an angelic voice - but, sometimes this switch to the one of a more angry, dangerous (witch-like?) character. Harvey is quite clearly different. Let England Shake's 12 songs hold on to
a red thread; England. The cheerful rhythm and the positive tone of the opening (title) track is just a facade. Here's war and death and murder, more war and death, and not
a pretty picture painted, neither of England nor the global community. Is there hope? As the lyrics goes in "The Words That Maketh Murder": 'What if I take my problem to the United Nations...' Don't bullshit Polly Jean. She's willing to face whoever it takes. As usual she teams up with John Parish and Mick Harvey (The Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), the latter joining in on vocals on the closing "The Colour of the Earth". In fact (as there's a link to Cave via Harvey), PJ Harvey is sort of a female counterpart to Nick Cave, as they both explore darkness and mystery.
The rumbling, rambling "The Glorious Land" is marvellous, and where "The Last Living Rose" had marching war-drums, this one's got an 'attacking', fanfaring war-trumpet.
"On Battleship Hill" starts off sounding as The Feelies (!), with PJ's angel/siren voice falling in (plus some male vocal backing). Great song. Another great track is the
bouncy "Bitter Branches", as is the gripping "In The dark Places". Let England Shake was recorded at a church in Dorset through five weeks last spring, and it's produced by hip super-producer Flood (aka Mark Ellis - whose first production project was... Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' debut From Her to Eternity). Let England Shake is truly victorious. Maybe not for England, but for Harvey it sure is. And, even if a few songs slightly make me lose interest, I can't see why this won't be no less than a true classic record. Perfect sound, perfect mood, perfect gloom. No party album.
Copyright © 2011 Håvard Oppøyen
Let England Shake
Let England Shake has many similarities with Polly Jean's previous solo album, the excellent White Chalk (also dealing with the English - the white chalk cliffs of Dover). [She recorded a duo album with her steady companion John Parish (also highly present here) in 2009, A Woman A Man Walked By, but that's another story.] The melodies are neat, hummable, occasionally catchy pop-rock.
But while the songs of White Chalk was written on and dominated by the piano, Let England is a guitar-oriented album. The arrangements are relatively simple, meaning quite few instruments involved on each track. And PJ sings in a relaxed and neat way. The punk expressions from her earlier albums are long gone, apart from the thin and primitive guitar and rudimentary sax playing of "The Last Living Rose", performed by PJ herself. To avoid any misunderstandings: she plays more sophisticated on other songs here. The lyrics on the other hand, are as dark and gloomy as can be. The unrest is otherwise a little underneath the surface. But when the album sinks in, the disturbance grows.
The lyrics prophesy the end of days as we know them. It's an album pervaded by war and death at the present and in the past:
'How is our glorious country ploughed, Not by iron ploughs; our land is ploughed by tanks and feet marching.'
There is no hope for England. Yet she can't leave. And it's no use to do what Eddie Cochran did 53 years ago (in "Summertime Blues") when he took his problem to the United Nations...
The contrast between the apparent happy-go-lucky melodies and doom-laden lyrics are fascinating. With lyrics less serious, the title track might have turned into a hit. That seems to be far beyond our lady's agenda. She does what she must and wants to do. In that instance and in some of her vocal expressions, especially "England"
and "Written On The Forehead", she reminds me of another female composer and singer with lots of attitude, Björk. So then, while Björk is the undisputable rock queen of Iceland, PJ is the rock queen of England. An England both shaken and stirred. White Chalk evolved into a personal album favourite of 2007. It's too early to say if Let England Shake will do quite the same only a week after it was released, but it certainly seems to grow in the same direction.
Copyright © 2011 JP