A look at why I declare PJ Harvey’s latest album, "Let England Shake," to be my favorite album of 2011.
2011 is half over as I write this, but I honestly believe it will be hard for any album to top PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” as my favorite album of 2011. With each project she does, PJ finds new themes and a different sound which makes each album of hers distinct from the last. If “Let England Shake” isn’t her best album, it is certainly her most tuneful.
With “Let England Shake,” Harvey sings about war and its effect on England and the devastation left in its path. Now before you accuse her of taking an anti-war stance against Iraq and Afghanistan or having a “liberal bias,” it’s important to note that neither of those wars is mentioned here. In fact, Harvey doesn’t point to any war in particular, and this succeeds in making this album timeless. It’s a poetic examination of the damage war leaves us and how the memories of it are forever burned in our memories. In retrospect, this may be the closest thing to a folk record PJ Harvey has ever done.
The album opens with the title track which hints at the beginning of a conflict which will change England as everyone knows it. Things will never be the same as young men and women head off to what Harvey calls “the fountain of death.” After that, “Let England Shake” focuses on what has been lost and of horrific memories the mind can’t erase. It reminds me of the first act of “The Deer Hunter” and of how Vietnam changed the main characters.
Harvey recorded “Let England Shake” at St Peter’s Church which lends an ethereal and majestic sound to it overall. As dark as the lyrics are, the music sounds so beautiful that things don’t feel as bad as they sound. This is especially the case with “Written On The Forehead” and “The Colour Of The Earth” which contrast their harsh visuals with musical and vocal melodies that drift over the listener like a soothing gush of wind. But with “The Glorious Land,” “Bitter Branches,” and “In The Dark Places” the music never obscures the darkness of war and of what it did to a once beautiful country.
The most well known song from “Let England Shake” is “The Words That Maketh Murder,” and it’s a combination of a great beat and lyrics which hint at the unforgettable horrors that define war. The lyrics are sparse in description, but for it brings up for each listener images of battles as they remember them. The irony of the song is while the lyrics are quite dark; the music contrasts them to where you could dance to this song.
PJ Harvey has always been one of my favorite music artists, and I look forward to every album she puts out. “Let England Shake” represents her at most deeply inspired, and I feel like I could listen to it non-stop. She captured my attention years ago when her song “Down By The Water” was featured on “The Basketball Diaries” soundtrack, and she has never disappointed me in the music she creates. “Let England Shake” may be her most accessible work to date and I hope people take the time to check it out.