Let England Shake

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Before writing this review I watched PJ Harvey being featured on the BBC’s Culture Show, until this point I’d managed to avoid any leaks, previews or internet rumblings about the imminent album, Let England Shake. The interview and performance were disconcerting, to me, for two main reasons; firstly, Harvey described her latest work as some sort of war concept album where she (imaginarily and unofficially) appointed herself as a war songwriter (much like a war poet or photographer), and secondly, the tracks she played on the show with just an electric guitar were, on first listen, slightly underwhelming. It was then, a pleasant surprise to hear the lush and full bodied title track which opens this album and establishes its running concept, it’s a real gem in Harvey's bustling and varied back catalogue. The musical bombardment of the opener sees its counterpart in track two, the stark and sparse "The Last Living Rose" is more traditional PJ Harvey which lowers the rhythm section and puts the guitar and evocative vocal to the front of the mix. This somewhat of a rarity though on an album which is notably dense compared to most of Harvey's recent work. The songs are crammed with instruments and ideas which, without a great producer would almost certainly water down the finished product. In the hands of the experienced Flood though (and his co-producing band members; PJ Harvey, John Parish and Mick Harvey), the record really comes to life whilst allowing the disturbing and poetic lyrical content to shine through. Tracks like "The Words That Maketh Murder" ("I've seen and done things I want to forget, I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, Blown and shot out beyond belief") and "The Glorious Land" ("What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children") heavily illustrate the war scene and aftermath in graphic detail. Equally gripping are the more subtle odes including "In the Dark Places" ("We got up early, washed our faces, walked the fields, and put up crosses") which also builds into an emotionally heartfelt crescendo and serves as one of the album's major achievements. All this said, an album with great lyrics still needs great songs, and this album has a big pile of them, one of the best on this record (and of ANY of Harvey's records) being "All and Everyone" which fuses elements of protest folk with a dreamlike refrain to particularly spectacular effect. It will be no great shock that, on a War-themed concept album, death plays a major part in the lyrical and musical narrative; it is quite staggering though that Harvey has produced such an uplifting and mesmerising record where each track plays like a striking movie scene. A new-found song writing peak combined with a tight-knit band and atmospheric production make this PJ Harvey’s most impressive collection to date and an early front-runner for album of the year.

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