PJ Harvey’s latest album see’s the lady whom never sits still veer off into new audio territory with “Let England Shake” – a throwback to 60’s rock set in a cowboy Western gunslinging match.
The title track opens the album with the audio font to set the album off. Twanging dissonant guitars, swishing drums that never take charge except to guide the listener to tap slightly and dueling vocals. A playful marimba-like riff plays over the top of this track which is one of the more upbeat numbers – more like a country shuffle! “The Last Living Rose” is about as pure rock as the album gets with a defined electric acoustic guitar and strong vocals. This song, like most of the album feels purposely run down and chugging. There’s something of a breakdown going on throughout the album where everything feels intentionally clunky and muddy. It reminds me stylistic of Uh-Huh-Her but with a lot more cohesion.
“The Glorious Land” is a real treat with a completely out of time battle horn sounding over echoing guitars and a soft but fast drum beat. One of the key new sounds for this album is having a male vocal run alongside PJ’s two differently pitched vocal tracks and here’s the first sample of it and it works perfectly. This is possibly my favourite track from the album and it builds up to a great call/response finale. The echoing guitars and muddy brass riffs continue with “The Words That Maketh Murder” which has a maddening swirling quality to it. It also, just like the title track, has a sinister comedic evil to it because the male vocals underpinning the track makes me think of very old Hollywood musicals where everyone dances with happy smiles and hats on. Imagining that while they sing about words that maketh murder sits deliciously on my brain!
“All and Everyone” is the first real slow track on the album with organs filling out the reverbs. Nowhere else is the whole clunky beautiful breakdown element of the album more exposed and on show than here in the chorus’. “On Battleship Hill” see’s PJ’s higher vocal register used to excellent effect as she soars “cruel nature has won again”. The whole cowboy western vision is heightened here as the almost spoken deep male vocal compliments Harvey to perfection and light piano tinkles away to the beat in simple but beautiful interludes. Here, like a lot of the tracks, you can tell Harvey is really giving it some welly but you don’t get the whole effect because the entire album bleeds across the speakers.
“England” is the abstract track on the album almost sounding Bulgarian at the start as a background lament gives a middle eastern feel to it. The rest of the track is acoustic guitar led with lots of abstract uses of string instruments filling the corners. “In The Dark Places” floats towards the rockier end of the spectrum with the most direct track on the album with a anthemic bridge. I also like how the chorus is much more sparse than the verses.
“Bitter Branches” is the third in the trilogy of fast tempo tracks on the album. PJ snarls and shouts every two lines in what for some reason is a song that makes me think of T-Rex. It doesn’t sound like them at all! I’ll just leave that out there. “Hanging in the Wire” is ethereal with simple piano chords leading the way over whispery vocals and hissy percussion. It’s like we’ve battled through the cities of England to the open countryside and quiet spots of the country.
Simple yet disarmingly beautiful.
“Written On the Forehead” is the hippy track of the bunch. The whole track is an ambient echo of guitars and uplifting vocal samples while a heavily processed Harvey sounds like all her vocal tracks clash over each other which makes her sound not of this earth. “The Colour of the Earth” is the closing track, which appears to use the male vocal as the lead vocal! It’s almost like an Irish pub ditty you’d sing after ten pints but it fits the album perfectly.
“Let England Shake” has a sound all of its own. A throw back to yesteryear in terms of style, production, intent and emotion – it’s a perfectly pitched tonic to all the nitpickers that sit on every note. This is an album that is more about the overall tone and feeling than the precision perfect clinical music you can have these days. Roll on the next PJ Harvey sound!