Let England Shake
Feb 25, 2011 Issue #35 - Winter 2011 - Death Cab for Cutie
Both an excoriation and celebration of her home country, Let England Shake is as straightforward a concept as PJ Harvey has ever addressed on record. Following up 2007’s largely piano-based White Chalk, this album is ornate by comparison, as the songs are often buttressed by autoharp, brass, and thickets of electric guitar. Yet there’s ample room left for Harvey’s rich, sonorous vocals to breathe, and the record’s sprightly instrumentation often belies the gravitas of her words, as she brazenly navigates the treacherous terrain of her nation’s rich, and often violent, history.
A bugle call echoes repeatedly through “The Glorious Land,” providing a straightforward symbol for the brutality addressed in the lyrics. The song begins with a sinewy bass throb that gives way to a call and response jangle pop number, as Harvey urges with alacrity, “What is the glorious fruit of our land?,” followed in quick succession by the sinister rejoinder, “The fruit is orphan children.”
Sprightly handclaps usher in “The Words that Maketh Murder,” a superb duet with longtime collaborator John Parrish, with a brisk guitar line and lithe brass surges leavening the morose nature of the lyrics. As Harvey keens, “I’ve seen flies swarming everyone/Soldiers fell like lumps of meat,” Parrish repeats the titular refrain like a mantra, until the pair comes together to harmonize sardonically, “Gonna take my problems to the United Nations.” “Bitter Branches” finds Harvey wailing histrionically “Wave goodbye” over and over again at the song’s outro, as if she’s seen enough violence for one lifetime, with snarling guitars and jittery percussion echoing her smoldering rage. And indeed, if there’s an underlying motif that guides Let England Shake, it’s one of being utterly enraged with the seemingly endless cycle of war and violence, while simultaneously being captivated by the mythology of one’s home nation.
This conundrum’s never reconciled, but is perhaps best captured on penultimate track “Written on the Forehead.” As Harvey inscrutably intones of “a trench of burning oil” and “lifetime earnings amongst the scattered rubbish,” a rapid reggae lilt kicks in, over which she bleats “Let it burn” repeatedly and contemptuously, as if she’s ready to burn it all down and start again. (www.pjharvey.net)
Author rating: 8/10
Average reader rating: 9/10