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Review: PJ Harvey, ‘Let England Shake’

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: February 15, 2011
Label: Vagrant

PJ Harvey is beloved for a cornucopia of reasons — her ferocity, her frankness, that wild, slicing yelp — but looseness has never been one of them. Even Harvey’s best records can feel like over-wound springs: they’re meticulous, exacting exercises in tension and control. That restraint reached its pinnacle on 2007’s stark, piano-led White Chalk; and on its long-awaited follow-up, Harvey finally gives. Slack, virile, and fantastically rhythmic, Let England Shake is a glorious uncoiling.

Recorded live in a church in Dorset, England (her home county), with longtime collaborators John Parish, Mick Harvey, and producer Flood, Let England Shake is fixated, lyrically, on the vagaries of war. Harvey alludes to the Gallipoli invasion by the British and French armies on April 25, 1915 (a quick, amphibious strike at the Ottoman Empire that devolved into a long, vicious battle); but war being what it is, many of these tracks are horrific in a timeless way (“I have seen and done things I want to forget / Soldiers fell like lumps of meat / Blown and shot-out beyond belief,” she chants in “The Words That Maketh Murder“).

Harvey has eschewed the notion that this is an overtly political record, but Let England Shake does suggest certain universal truths-self is subsumed by country, interiors are trumped by exteriors, and dried blood always leaves the ground “dull and browny-red.” When she sings about her birth nation — as she does often, howling, “Goddamn, Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England!” on “The Last Living Rose” — she’s both euphoric and disgusted, not unlike a soldier deep in the field.

Musically, the record is stompy and melodic, and at times Harvey’s voice can be giddy and girlish. She often plays an oddly tuned autoharp, nodding both to the Carter Family and to countless generations of elementary-school grads (or at least the ones lucky enough not to have been saddled with a plastic recorder), and its simplicity suits this batch of songs awfully well. Nearly effortless to strum, the Autoharp is very much a folk tool, and despite the intensity of the stories she’s telling, Harvey’s vocals and arrangements — now liberated from fussier instrumentation — sound remarkably free.

The title track, built around a jumpy xylophone riff, is an addictive cautionary tale (“Pack up your troubles, let’s head out / To the fountain of death and splash about,” she sings cheerfully), while the woozy single “Written on the Forehead,” which samples Niney the Observer’s reggae classic “Blood and Fire,” is bright and unexpectedly synthetic, like a plastic Easter egg nestled in real grass. Over and over, Harvey marries grisly lyrics to buoyant music, so the borrowed refrain “Let it burn, let it burn” ends up sounding both apocalyptic and strangely celebratory. It’s easy to hum along, never knowing the horrors you’re inadvertently endorsing.

Harvey’s eclecticism — her ability to gracefully flit between genres and tones — is what keeps her work so vital, yet Let England Shake is still something of a revelation. Arguably her most pop-friendly record since 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, it’s an intense indictment of the way countries fight, apolitical only in that it outlines what war does to human beings, not governments. Sung with warmth, these tracks offer a welcome antidote to her more familiar performance mode — spectacular austerity. They’re as bloody and forceful as the battles Harvey references.