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February 25, 2011

PJ Harvey redefines the art of war

Almost a century later, World War I still resonates among artists. PJ Harvey is said to have been inspired by the historic war for her eighth studio album, Let England Shake. Harvey muses on combat, desolation, and despair as she sings over a sonic framework that at times mirrors the grizzly battlefields of war and during others creates a captivating, up-tempo juxtaposition to the somber lyrics. Let England Shake is a highly conceptual, extraordinarily vivid, tragic, and traumatic work that will remain with the listener long after its 40 minutes are through.

The album opens with “Let England Shake,” a striking, almost jangling piece that is immediately captivating. The twinkling taps of the xylophone are jarring and somewhat surreal, making it a standout song. This is followed by “The Last Living Rose,” a track in which the use of brass instruments hearkens back to a period long gone.

One interesting aspect of Let England Shake is the extensive use of the Autoharp. In using this haunting and ethereal instrument, Harvey is able to construct an eerie environment—perfect for an album concerned with massive death and destruction. Its strange, airy sound draws the listener in immediately. This is particularly effective on “All and Everyone,” where Harvey sings, “Death was everywhere,” and the combination of the brassiness of the saxophone and the trombone clashes with the Autoharp. When the tempo slows, the effect is disturbing.

On “The Glorious Land,” Harvey’s voice is equally captivating and dissonant as she sings, “Our lands are plowed by tanks and feet / feet marching.” A trumpet sounds throughout the piece—a jarring addition that makes it impossible to let the music be the background to the vocals. It’s alarming, but it is evident that this sense of disquietude was completely intentional. The distance of Harvey’s voice and the distance of the trumpet sound make the piece feel as expansive as the empty fields described.

The lyrics on Let England Shake convey horrific scenes of war in a blunt, almost disturbing manner. In “The Words That Maketh Murder,” Harvey proclaims, “I’ve seen and done things that I want to forget / I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat.” “Hanging in the Wire” presents a grim scene as the stark “smashed up waste ground” is revealed after “the mist rises over no man’s land.” The scenes that Harvey’s lyrics paint are remarkably vivid, and their solitude is mimicked sonically by the simplicity of the music itself. The accompaniment is simple and at times almost upbeat.

A cautionary note: This album isn’t for the faint of heart, lyrically or sonically. Harvey’s voice is absolutely dramatic and powerful in its expression. It is ghostly and gorgeous, haunting and horrifying—sometimes all within the same song.

In “On Battleship Hill,” the high register of Harvey’s voice clashes with the strong, sharp, even caustic strumming of the zither. The song rises to a chorus made by a combination of multiple voices, and Harvey strains to proclaim, “Cruel nature has won again.” Another song, “England,” is a short, reflective piece in which the vocals are so emotive, it’s impossible not to be moved by Harvey’s mournful wailing.

“The Colour of the Earth” ends the album with no real resolution. Instead, the album fades to a close, leaving the listener grasping for a conclusion. The beauty of Let England Shake is that there is no simple answer. The album tackles the brutality of war and paints a sonic landscape of scarcity. It is unsettling, and the lyrics are profound in their vivid portrayals.

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