By RYAN O’MALLEY
Entertainment Editor, SNSPost
Who is PJ Harvey? Who is the woman who has established herself so strongly as to have received five Grammy nominations and accolades as high as the number one female rock artist, all while still remaining a bit of an unknown? We’re talking about someone who hit the music scene strong in the late 80s and is continuing to demonstrate individuality almost 25 years later.
It is said that Harvey reinvents herself with every album, even going as far as changing her physical appearance to better fit the tone of the pieces on which she’s working. Let England Shake admittedly being my introduction to Harvey, perhaps it takes familiarity with her entire repertoire to fully appreciate the direction she took with this latest effort, to know all that has come to be and all that has influenced the mind and desires of Harvey. That aside, Let England Shake is an up-close, first-hand account of the world that Harvey sees today.
What seemed to grab my attention more than anything else in this album is that it almost seems out of place in 2011. The lyrics and musical style seem more appropriate for a late-60s Vietnam War protest. This is noticeable right away with the opening title track and continues both subtly and overtly throughout the album. But what separates this from the Woodstock rock that literally defined a generation of Americans, Harvey is speaking from an entirely new viewpoint, one analyzing the modern world and as an English(wo)man.
Seeming to be stuck in the middle of a love-hate relationship with her homeland, Harvey follows the reluctant concession of the title track with the reverence of “The Last Living Rose” and her anxiousness to return home to the enemy she knows and loves best. But turning right back around, “The Glorious Land,” complete with a heavy-handed cavalry charge, turns back to questioning the very foundation of England, and America too.
“The Words the Maketh Murder” is probably the most puzzling of all the tracks. Told from the perspective of a soldier returning from war, the graphic violence of the verses is offset by the catchy and yet still miserable chorus, one that you might even find yourself singing aloud to the confused and concerned looks of those around you…“these, these, these are the words…the words that maketh murder…” And it’s all summed up with a take Eddie Cochran’s classic, “what if I take my problem to the United Nations.” Woah.
But hey, if that didn’t get you in the right mood, perhaps the opening line of “All and Everyone” will help set you right: “Death was everywhere.” Ah, yes. That did it. Harvey’s carrying some serious weight with her. And as if this weight of the present weren’t heavy enough, she insists we go back 80 years to “Battleship Hill” and reflect on the tears of the past.
The cringe-inducing instrumentals and vocals of “England” seem to be no accident as she revisits her torn feelings toward her country. And just to make sure you understand perfectly what the theme is here, “In the Dark Places” and “Bitter Branches” should put any argument to rest.
It’s only in the remaining two tracks that Harvey begins to lighten the mood, but in music only. The lyrics of “Hanging on the Wire” and “Colour of the Earth” are no reprieve from the darkness of its predecessors, but it is now that Harvey allows a glimmer of sunshine to break through with some soft piano and vocals and a Syd Barrett-like guest appearance by Mick Harvey (no relation), respectively.
Harvey’s own thoughts state that Let England Shake is not a political album. She says it’s simply her “looking outward.” While it might be true in that she doesn’t seem to favor one ideal over the other, there is clearly no shortage of political overtones, laments on death and war, and a viewpoint of someone who sees quite a bit wrong with the world. I can’t say as I disagree entirely, but I also can’t say that I want it all crammed into one album. In art, there is a delicate balance when dealing with depressing and morbid realities. Too little and one can seem dismissive. Too much and one can come off as engrossed and even despondent, and unfortunately it is the latter that Harvey accomplishes here. While this may be balanced by her other albums, here it prevents the album from standing on its own. Even more disappointing is that musically, Harvey achieves quite a lot, but the burden of the lyrics proves too much.
Available at Amazon.com and iTunes.
Ryan O’Malley is a freelance writer for the SNSPost.com and can be found on his blog at www.omalleezalley.com