PJ HARVEY – Let England Shake (Island)

I loved P.J. Harvey’s first album, but didn’t really stick with her through the 90’s like I should have done, eventually coming back to her with ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’. Consequently, when this album was hailed as a tremendous return to form I had no hesitation in giving it a try, even though its description as a sort of concept album about the First World War could have started some alarm bells ringing. The title track starts off quite jauntily, but when you listen to the lyrics you realise that this is not going to last, as young men get ready to leave for the front. ‘The Last Living Rose’ harks right back to Harvey’s early albums in its sparse instrumentation, having an almost military beat to the rhythm, which is entirely in keeping with the subject matter. The bugle call punctuating the intro to ‘The Glorious Land’ gives an eerily spooky feel to the song, more so because it is totally out of time to the rest of the song. The track itself pounds along with Harvey’s insistent guitar powering through it. ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ has a catchy sing-along tune, but once again it is the lyrics that hit home – ‘I have seen and done things that I want to forget, soldiers fell like lumps of meat’. ‘All And Everyone’ is the story of a battle at Bolton’s Ridge, delivered over a brooding backdrop. ‘On Battleship Hill’ strips the instrumentation right back to just acoustic guitar and drums, over which Harvey sings in her new-found falsetto. The pace picks up towards the end, and a ghostly piano makes a fleeting appearance, but less is certainly more on this powerful ballad. With its vocal pyrotechnics at the start reminding me of the Voix Bulgares albums of the 80’s, and the cycle horns parping at the end ‘England’ could be something of a mess, but Polly Jean pulls it all together to deliver a love song to her native country. ‘In The Dark Places’ is a bluesy, rhythm driven track, and ‘Bitter Branches’ expands on the theme in a fuller band setting. You can almost guess what the lyrics to ‘Hanging In The Wire’ involve, and yes, it is about a soldier caught in barbed wire, all set to a repetitive beat and Harvey’s mellow vocals. The lyrics to ‘The Colour Of The Earth’ could be read as a poem and come over as striking enough, but being set to a simple melody and getting Mick Harvey to sing them gives them an added gravitas. So ends a remarkable return to form for PJ Harvey, with an album that just drips with passion and involvement. I particularly like her more mellow singing style, and the stripped back arrangements of the songs, and can highly recommend this record to fans old and new.

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