PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)

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Let England Shake is a masterpiece, battlefield correspondence from the frontline of the human heart. Apparently, the Imperial War Museum in London agreed.

On the strength of her sixth studio album, the august institution offered PJ Harvey a gig as their “official war song correspondent.” They couldn’t have made a better choice. By turns cathartic and deeply unsettling, Let England Shake covers conflicts past and present with horror, outrage, grace and compassion.

Poly Jean accomplishes all of this with deceptively gentle and mischievous music, mining a vein of English eccentricity that runs through Kate Bush’s “Army Dreamers” and XTC’s English Settlement. An oddly tuned autoharp dominates compositions brimming with unexpected surprises.

The xylophone melody from the retro-’50s sing-along “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” kicks off the title track, referencing a world in political and moral flux examined by this album. A distant trumpet calls reveille throughout the loping reggae of “The Glorious Land.” “The Words that Maketh Murder” caps off a litany of horrific wartime imagery with a quote from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”: “Why don’t I take my problems to the United Nations?”

Singing in her upper register, Harvey gives voice to some her darkest and most disturbing visions. In “This Glorious Land,” “our land is ploughed by tanks and feet,” while “its fruit is deformed children.”

And consider this couplet from “The Words that Maketh Murder”:

I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,
Blown and shot out beyond belief.
Arms and legs were in the trees.

This is more than rocking the Casbah. Like Picasso’s Guernica, Let England Shake is art bearing witness to atrocity. It’s an attempt to shake us out of our complicity in the events we witness, generation after generation, but do little to change.

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Patrick Moran

Patrick Moran

Chicago native Pat Moran is a filmmaker who has produced and written five feature films, and served as producer and editor for Western Classics, a film series hosted by actor James Best. He also writes about music for Creative Loafing Charlotte. The best job title he ever had was "part-time vampire." Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Patrick Moran
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