Tuesday, February 15, 2011

England's Dreaming

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Island)

Much as I really admire the writing and expertise of Rob Young, I can't help but question his assessment of the new PJ Harvey album in this month's Wire magazine. It's good to read a balanced review that steers clear of hyperbole or cynical attacks but his assertion that Let England Shake feels unfinished feels like a mistake to me. As is often the case with PJ Harvey albums, the music is raw, direct and sometimes combative but to me this feels like one of Harvey's most cohesive and successful artistic statements. It's impressive that so far into a recording career of perhaps surprising longevity, Harvey is continuing to develop and expand her horizons.

Thematically, Let England Shake could be presented as a logical extension of the concerns of its predecessor, 2007's White Chalk. On that album, Harvey seemed preoccupied with images of the English landscape - concerns that seemed to inspire her to traverse new musical terrain too, finding a new, higher vocal register and basing many of the arrangements around her rather rudimentary piano playing (even starker and less finessed than Joanna Newsom's). Some of those thoughts recur - as Harvey sings of the white cliffs of Dover for example - but Let England Shake seems to be aimed at broader concerns. Here, PJ Harvey addresses both imperial history and a war-dominated present, perhaps suggesting that England's glory has been blighted by war.

Few songwriters would have the historical impulse to make reference to the doomed Galipoli campaign, but sometimes Harvey's lyrics feel more impressionistic than some writers have suggested. On 'The Last Living Rose', she risks sounding like a Daily Express leader - 'Goddamn Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England'. Presumably, her attention is ironic, drawing attention the nation's imperial decline (for which reason I'm never quite sure whether she really means England, or is in fact speaking more generally about Britain).

Perhaps the most interesting feature about Let England Shake, the element that most reviews have bafflingly ignored, is how it sounds. Harvey has always had a tremendous gift for getting maximum results from the bare minimum of material. That she seems to do this without ever really repeating herself makes this all the more impressive. Whereas White Chalk foregrounded rudimentary piano, the guitar and Harvey's autoharp are at the heart of Let England Shake. Much of the music is based on very basic strumming patterns - yet it sounds primal and urgent rather than purely reductive. A finely balanced degree of reverb adds to the sense of impending doom.

Another common feature is call and response vocal techniques, which are used to superb effect on both The Glorious Land and The Words That Maketh Murder (on which Mick Harvey joins in), two of Harvey's finest songs to date. Basic rock and roll music is transformed into something more mysterious - something much closer to an English folk tradition.

Harvey also adds elements that seem incongruous - sometimes they are very obviously exactly that. The sample of Niney's Blood and Fire that underpins Written On The Forehead is not matched to the song's pitch or tempo and neither is the bugle clarion call on The Glorious Land. Elsewhere, baritone saxophone seems like a more forceful presence than bass guitar, especially on the ominous, drifting All and Everyone.

The quality and depth of feeling of the music here is remarkably consistent, but a few songs stand out nonetheless. On Battleship Hill is remarkable. It veers between a gentle, relaxed strum that might seem twee in any other context and some freer, subliminal moments on which Harvey's high register vocal sounds desperate. It ends with the devastating assessment that 'cruel nature has won again'. It's a startling, unpredictable, deviously clever piece of writing. England is a poignant, melancholy lament that demonstrates the great versatility of Harvey's voice on this album. Here she sounds more ragged and unhinged. Hanging In The Wire is simply beautiful, whilst Written On The Forehead is just disarmingly weird.

PJ Harvey seems to be one of those artists that just seems to get better as she matures. There is a case for her being right up there with Kate Bush and Bjork in the pantheon of great contemporary female artists. Sometimes in the past, her work has tended to be raw to the point of being difficult. Let England Shake is brilliantly realised - a Harvey album that can be loved as much as it can be admired.

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