Originally published at The 405
When PJ Harvey announced Let England Shake, her eighth album, I was excited. When she said she was going to probe the darkness underpinning modern England, I couldn’t wait to hear it. The idea reminded me of Scarlet’s Walk, Tori Amos’ concept album about finding America. The two had fairly similar musical sensibilities in their early work, but they’ve had such different career trajectories that I looked forward to seeing how differently Harvey would address the concept.
Amos found the heartland, the forgotten people of America, the natives tucked away into reservations and porn stars tucked away in film studios. She uncovered all the people hiding in plain sight, trapped by their public identities. They are not lost people; they are the people right in front of you who you choose not to see.
Harvey’s search, on the other hand, is more coloured by longing; she doesn’t find what she’s looking for, and laments what she does find – a history of violence, boundless despair, and faded glory. This is the England of the Brontes, not Dickens or Austen. This is the England where any hope or prettiness is merely a veneer, a delusion made acceptable by calling it ‘nostalgia’.
All this makes it sound like Let England Shake is a dreary album, when really it’s anything but. As ever, the music is front and centre, and Harvey infuses the album with tremendous creativity and thought. She’s not content with throwing polemics in our face; she seeks to shock us of our complacency. That’s what makes the album so surprising, so unique, and so whole. The music is carefully crafted to mirror both the dull acceptance of middle class society and the occasional uprising; trumpet stabs come out of nowhere, reggae beats filter into musical soundscapes evocative of Dover.
There’s no better expression of this odd dichotomy than ‘This Glorious Land‘, where rise-and-shine bugles are set against moody guitar and bass, amid chants of “O! America! O! England!” Even songs like ‘Hanging in the Wire‘, with its straightforward beauty and simple melody, are coloured with darkness. There’s no getting past war in this land.
But through it all, true love shines through. Maybe that’s what makes the record so compelling; Harvey faces up to all these dark truths about her homeland, and then, almost despite herself, she feels joy and pride. Check out ‘The Last Living Rose‘. She sings of drunken beatings and dead sea-captains, but this is not a dirge. The melodies would lead you to believe that it’s a celebration. Even though you're celebrating through your teeth.