BEST OF 2011: 26. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Since completing my list, the monthlies have published their End of Year countdowns and both Mojo and Uncut have plumped for this, with even Q realising that it needed to be fairly close to the top, even if they did feel that Florence had more to offer on this occasion. It’s certainly a very fine record and one which, in terms of scope and subject matter, Harvey finally felt able to attempt at this stage in her career -  an album which has been described as a state of the nation address for 2011. The lyrical content will certainly prompt several theses, a couple of pretentious retrospective pieces in the music press in five, ten years from now and the cry that this is essential social commentary for our times. Forgive me if I just like it largely for the tunes.

Shake

The bugle atop ‘The Glorious Land’ is completely at odds, not to mention out of time, with the jangling guitar below and, while its presence opens up various interpretations as to the track’s message, I just find myself wishing I could stick with the brilliant song beneath. There’s no doubting that the lyrical comment here is sharp, often staggering, with talk of a soldier “walking on the faces of dead women and everyone I left behind me,” and it’s hard not to be caught up in the atmosphere at the heart of this album. However, this has led to a number of reviews saying that this album is bleak and a hard listen. Unwanted bugle aside, I just don’t hear it that way. The surgery-on-a-live-and-awake-puppy singing style of ‘White Chalk’ was often difficult to listen to, but ‘Let England Shake’ is a tremendous juggernaut of an album; well-paced and beautifully produced; it is a captivating experience. I can already imagine this being one of those albums which vinyl foragers will clutch excitedly when a pristine copy surfaces in the racks in thirty years time.

‘Let England Shake’ works incredibly well as an album of two halves – whether intentionally or not – with the stop-start flow of ‘On Battleship Hill’ bringing side one to a close, accompanying the message “cruel nature has won again.” Side two commences with the relatively subdued ‘England’ – “to you…I cling” – before building up, once again, a fierce sense of purpose. It’s purposeful, it’s relentless and it’s exciting!

The sound isn’t always big in the sense that it’s bursting out of the speakers, nor big in the sense that it is a particularly heavy album, but the spacious production and the waves of music which fill the room suggest that it isn’t quite as haunting and murky as some would have you believe. Although that may be because I’m listening on vinyl – ahem. What I’m essentially driving at is that some of the descriptions of this record – often with complete sincerity and largely fascinating insight and interpretations – have made it seem cold, forbidding and hard-going. I can only speak for myself, but those are adjectives which wouldn’t necessarily send me scurrying to the shops. On ‘Let England Shake’, PJ Harvey has found a different voice, both literally and lyrically, and crafted something very much of our time and yet completely out of time.

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