PJ Harvey spent three years writing Let England Shake, and a mere five weeks to record what would become her eighth and most poignantly powerful release to date. The process was a tedious and tumultuous one, with background research taking the songstress from historical and anthropological writings on the history of warfare to recent testimonies from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A great deal of the album was recorded live, at a 19th century Dorset church overlooking the sea. Longtime collaborators Flood and John Parish coproduced, along with former Bad Seed Mick Harvey. PJ described the recording as somewhat improvisational in collaboration, despite its lengthy gestation period, commenting: "I wanted to leave room for them so they could bring their feelings into it as well. Usually I would have planned everything and known what instrumentation I wanted. This time I demoed the songs mostly with one or two instruments with a voice and that was as much as I had. So I basically had the chords and a couple of saxophone melodies, a couple of voice melodies and that was what I took with me to the church. We rehearsed the songs as if we were rehearsing to play them live and found quite quickly that we had only rehearsed a song through maybe twice and Flood had started recording us."
"England’s dancing days are done,” Harvey mourns on the title track to Let England Shake, “I fear our blood won’t rise again.”
A prevailing theme throughout the album is of torn patriotism, a deep love of homeland in conflict with discomfort over her nation’s imperialistic endeavors. England hasn’t exactly inspired much imperialist doom since the 1950s, but the album is both about the history of England and the narrator’s conflicted relation to its rotting core, a fit of bittersweet nationalism.
For the first time in Polly Jean’s career, she departs from introspective personal lyricism, instead focusing a narrative design around the country of her birth. She centers not on instigating conflict, but to bear witness the existing struggle, from the Gallipoli slaughter of the first World War to the quagmire of present day conflict. She grimly identifies the arms and legs in the trees (and those aren’t branches), the color of blood on sand and the scent of thyme on the wind, mixing to create an atmosphere you can nearly reach out and touch.
Her distaste for the bloodlust is evident, having premiered the title track on "The Andrew Marr Show" in front of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown – the UK bankroller of the Iraq war and the man accused of sending ill-equipped British forces into Afghanistan. Further along, when she sings about the propaganda that makes wars possible in "The Words That Maketh Murder," she plants the story in a solider’s perspective. "Why don’t I take my problems to the United Nations?" – a somber nod to Eddie Cochran’s "Summertime Blues".
"The Colour of the Earth" encapsulates the doom and gloom of Irish folk songs, mellotron and autoharp lending surrealism. "The Glorious Land" buoyed by a psychedelic bassline under a confrontationally off-key trumpet blast.
A broader sound builds on Let England Shake than we’ve previously heard from Harvey, but the knife still cuts to the bone. While this certainly qualifies as an album of despair and conflict, there is a rich and vivid fanning to the flames that runs through the final moments. In closer "The Colour of the Earth," a host of male voices support Polly as she recalls a soldier cut down in action, who is now "nothing but a pile of bones".
Some of us wail in agony at the horrible truths of our reality, hands to the sky in helpless defeat. Others, like Polly Jean, assault us with defiantly powerful metaphors that recognize the pain and the struggle, but refuse to succumb to the darkness and reactionary ambivalence of a world so multi-faceted and bloodthirsty. For those artistic beacons in the darkness, we should be thankful.
CraveOnline Rating: 7 out of 10