PJ Harvey - 'Let England Shake' (UK Release: 14 Feb '11)
These are serious times so I thank my lucky stars that despite Simon Cowell’s best efforts, we still have articulate and talented musicians capable of making songs that address serious issues. Polly Jean Harvey is arguably already a national treasure with an outstanding body of work, and her new album 'Let England Shake' is a triumph on every level.
It’s her most accessible album since 'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea', which broke her to the main stream in 2000, and it continues the development of musical ideas explored on 2007’s superb and quirky 'White Chalk'. It also seems to be closely related to the album she released with John Parish in 1996, 'Dance Hall At Louse Point', in that it is song based, rooted in a traditional musical form but invites you to explore way beyond the boundaries of the genre. Whereas 'Dance Hall...' takes the (Nick Cave-influenced) blues for its starting point, 'Let England Shake' is apparently a folk album – but in the true spirit of a post-punk artist.
According to opener and excellent title track 'Let England Shake', England’s dancing days are done - seemingly we are too weighed down by the events of the recent past to raise a jig. And it doesn’t get better anytime soon. The subject matter of each song is – or seems to be - a wistful nod to an England that no longer exists thanks to the savage nature of deeds done in the here and now. 'The Glorious Land' – one of my very favourites – has a recurrent, plaintive bugle riff of 'The Last Post' embedded in it, and every single song is infused with musical invention, brilliantly executed.
Yet whilst it is an overtly political album, it is at the same time a sharply conceived personal statement. It doesn’t preach even as it explores the themes of war, death and loss of both life and identity. It invites you to listen and agree or disagree as you wish – which of course is its great strength. Yes, maybe a hard rain is going to fall, but PJ Harvey is not insistent about who is to blame – that bit you can figure out for yourself.
The music is beautiful and poignant – rewarding repeated listening with layers of sounds and voices revealed as essential elements of a powerful and mature vision. The only weak moment on the whole album is the somewhat puzzling final track, 'The Colour Of The Earth' which isn’t a bad song but seems misplaced.
If anyone doubts that Punk Rock has left a lasting legacy then this album puts that to rights – PJ Harvey is perhaps closest in spirit to the late Joe Strummer than to any other musician, dead or alive. She has his gift for taking an established musical form and twisting it so that the medium truly becomes the message.
I might go as far to say that 'Let England Shake' is 'London Calling' for the 21st Century’s second decade. Depending on your point of view, you could say there’s no higher praise.
Stream the album in full at NPR. Pre-order from amazon.co.uk, or on iTunes etc.
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