Bollocks to all those people who say the music industry is failing. A major label subsidiary has just released the eighth studio album of a 40 year old woman who has never really achieved massive commercial success. Oh and it’s a concept album about British conflict over the past hundred years.
But thank god Island did, because frankly this is the best album released all year. And it’s likely to still be so in ten months time. And most impressively of all this may well be the best album of PJ Harvey’s career.
What Harvey has created in Let England Shake is an album that feels decades old, rather appropriate considering that this album contains three songs inspired by the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. This album appears to be what might be described as traditional English ‘folk’ music, not so much beardy men with acoustic guitars but music that sounds like it resonates from English history. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the magnificent ‘The Glorious Land’, although the lyrics contain a menace that suggests a nation exhausted in the aftermath of the First World War: ‘What is the glorious fruit of our land/Its fruit is orphaned children.’ This weariness in the aftermath of conflict is also apparent in single ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, in which Harvey recycles the famous refrain of ‘Summertime Blues’ (‘What if I take my problems to the United Nations?’) in reference to the diplomatic climate of the inter-war period.
Work on Let England Shake began with Harvey researching the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and whilst this album has grown to become an anglocentric piece remnants of this research remain, so that whilst ‘England’ remains a moving paen to Harvey’s ancient land (‘Like water, like air/To you England I cling’) it is improved to become the stand-out track on an album full of stand-outs by the haunting Kurdish love song that lingers in the background.
Harvey’s voice remains in the higher register that she first adopted on White Chalk and she has spoken of her difficulty in finding the right voice for these songs, even considering bringing in someone else to sing them (indeed Mick Harvey takes the mic on ‘The Colour of the Earth’). However she need not have worried with her high voice an ideal accompaniment to these songs of longing for a lost nation.
It is difficult to overstate the brilliance of Let England Shake. Suffice to say few albums instantly feel as timeless as this, an album that feels like an instant classic after only a few weeks. The hype around this record has been deafening, but richly deserved. Even if this review may serve little purpose beyond adding to the critical choir it seems wrong to allow such a brilliant album pass by without showering it with praise.
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