EVEN before 2011, PJ Harvey was already a near-holy figure in the world of alt-rock. Her acclaimed albums, Dry, Rid of Me and the Mercury Award winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea were already being praised as seminal pieces from the 90s and 00s. In between these masterpieces were works such as White Chalk and To Bring You My Love which created atmospheres that took you to other worlds. Really, there wasn’t much Harvey could do to raise her profile even higher.
…And then Let England Shake happened.
The album took social commentary to a different level. Its dark and often gruesome descriptions of life during wartime painted a picture that was both historically accurate and relatable to a modern audience. Beyond the lyrics of war and suffering that reflect any poetry from the trenches, there’s a political undertone that doesn’t take the centre stage, but subtly points and laughs from the side. Notably, the line ‘Like gold hastily sold / for nothing, nothing’ takes a dig at the UK’s gold reserve’s being shifted in moments of panic.
A formidable presence, Harvey has the ability to make Prime Ministers shake in their suits, even armed merely with a guitar or an autoharp. But Let England Shake expands Harvey’s musical repertoire from much more than just the lone guitar, a sound she worked with in Rid of Me. Her discovery of the autoharp and re-discovery of the saxophone lend to her traditional three-piece band, thus doing what PJ Harvey does best and constantly evolving her style.
Unlike its predecessor, White Chalk, an album that creating a slow and frightening atmosphere, Let England Shake is inadvertently harrowing. While the music sounds upbeat at times, such as on ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, the true nature of this album comes through in songs like ‘England’, a heartfelt tribute to a country with a dark undertones, or ‘On Battleship Hill’, where Harvey’s ghostly wail is like a spirit in the trenches.
When I first listened to Let England Shake, a few months after its release, it opened up an entire world of new music to me. I was blown away by how something could be so meaningful and complex, with lyrical themes that I could never hope to fully to grasp, yet spoke to me so clearly. PJ Harvey received critical acclaim from music critics for her work, going on to win the Mercury Award for the second time, 10 years after the first.
People didn’t need to be reminded of how much of an artist Polly Harvey is, but Let England Shake was a sharp kick to the heads of listeners that did just that. It’s an album, no, a work of art, that speaks to generations from World War One to Afghanistan and everything in between. As it reaches its fourth birthday, the album sounds as fresh and great as ever, and with the follow-up in the works, anticipation is running high. Of course it’ll take a few more years before we can really see how this album will age; for now, however, Let England Shake is still as moving and deep as the day it came out.
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