When I first heard Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, I did not like it. I didn’t like it at all. I just did not connect with it. The title song was okay, and I quite liked second track, The Last Living Rose. But I wrote it off as a misstep in her career; a mistake.
Something about the album didn’t sit well with me – I thought it was a bit of a mess. But, I wanted to carry on listening to it. I wanted to unravel it, rather than just write it off as the sound of PJ herself unravelling. That was my initial thought – after first hearing Let England Shake I thought I was listening to someone’s mental decline through songs; a breakdown released as a record.
So why did I stick with Let England Shake?
Well – the title song and The Last Living Rose showed promise right from the start – so maybe I had been listening incorrectly? It can happen.
I should point out that I’m most definitely a PJ Harvey fan; have been for some time. I heard Rid Of Me first and then really fell for To Bring You My Love. I went back to Dry after that. And then I forgot about PJ Harvey for a little bit – but I loved the Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea album (released in 2000). Since then I’ve been a keen PJ fan, collecting everything. I flew to Sydney in late 2004 to see her play on the back of the Uh Huh Her album. It was a great show – made all the more worthwhile when it was announced she was taking a significant break from touring
That break signalled a sea-change for PJ Harvey. And in 2007 she returned with White Chalk – a staggeringly different album, haunting and haunted. She was singing in a far more fragile voice, gone was any semblance of the sharp pop singer/songwriter or the rock-chick; it was back to the artist, the pure artist. She had taught herself piano – the songs were stripped back, eerie. She toured in support of the album; again, stripped back instrumentally, a whole new sound palette had been created.
Let England Shake seemed bizarre to me at first, unnecessary almost; certainly confused. I know that many people have loved it instantly. And I know that there are some people out there – fans of Harvey’s – that are still struggling with it.
I’d love to tell you that it’s worth the struggle, carry on, it’s a grower – you will learn to love it.
But for some people this album this album might be a dud. They might be happy to never bother, or they might not hear anything in it for them on the first or the eighth or eighteenth listen. We are all different when it comes to how we listen and engage with music; we all have different music that speaks to us. And music speaks to us in different ways.
I spent time with Let England Speak because I kept catching snatches of the lyrics and thinking that they were brilliant constructions.
This, from The Last Living Rose:
Goddamn Europeans!/Take me back to beautiful England/And the grey damp filthiness of ages/And battered books/And fog rolling down behind the mountains/On the graveyards and dead sea-captains./Let me walk through the stinking alleys/To the music of drunken beatings/Past the Thames river glistening/Like gold hastily sold/For nothing
Here’s the link to the song again – if you want to hear it and read along.
There is poetry not just in the lyric but in the music that supports it.
On this album Harvey plays saxophone, among other instruments, using it to provide punctuation. Baritone honks are like semi-colons; musical, slithering in to allow other words to follow on, to flow on.
It is not just a lyrically brilliant album – it’s both a love letter to England and a (comment on a) death sentence; it’s both told through the eyes of a character and starkly confessional/personal – it is musical adventurous too.
Most of the instruments provide dual roles, both melodic and rhythmic. The saxophone offering punctuation is also like a musical stop-sign. Drums and guitars chug together, percussion clicks and clatters and feels majestic. Layers of sound swell so that there is a well-blanketed bed of sound for the lyrics to lie in. Lying there, honest, moving, passionate.
I read an interview piece where Harvey claimed to spend up to a year working on the lyrics; the music (mostly) completed. The lyrics tweaked and picked at after, stitched in to place with invisible thread.
This is an album that rewards repeat listens. I would think that would be the case even if you fell in love with it instantly.
I’m going to go so far as to say that it’s a masterpiece. And I’m certainly glad I kept listening to it, working through my issues with the music – what I mistook as a lack of focus was quite the opposite. This has been polished. It has been made with love. It is an album that stands out – that does not sound like anything else around, nor anything that came before it.
As an album it is almost without antecedent. Apart from some of PJ Harvey’s own records. And even then, it stands out and away from her other work. That said it also, in some sense, perfectly pulls together the pre-White Chalk material with White Chalk, closing the gap that might have been suggested; unifying Harvey’s work.
In a recording career of 20+ years it’s remarkable to think that with two collaboration albums (co-credited to John Parish), two demo collections and eight full length solo albums (up to and including Shake) Harvey has, quite possibly, just released her finest album.
That’s what I want from an artist.
I want to fall in and out of love with the works, to be challenged and to – occasionally – find some of them too challenging.
I also want to be wrong. And to feel like the music is so right. Even if I arrive there after other people. It’s not a race. It’s not about being right. Or coming first with the verdict. It’s about connecting; finding connection.
And I’ve found a connection with PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. (As I have with all of her material before and after). I’ve been rewarded for taking time with Let England Shake. For hearing it through many times and arriving out the other side feeling satiated – but wanting to hear it more. I actually can’t get enough of this record right now. I need to hear it most days. Sometimes more than once.
I like that I’ll be unpacking this album for months (years?) to come.
That might be something you dislike about the album. Maybe you don’t have the time and you require that an album grab you instantly. Maybe this album did grab you instantly.
So what do you think? Have you heard it? Or are you interested to hear it? And do you agree that Harvey has, over two decades, continued to innovate, to impress, to improve, to offer something unique?
Some of the other things I like about this album are that PJ Harvey shows a sense of conflict with her home; she’s confused about how she feels about England. She’s proud of it and ashamed of it. I like that. She’s also created a new distinctly English voice. This is no music-hall send up. It’s not pastiche. But it is a distinctly English record. I like that too. She’s also making a short film (music video) for every track from the album. And because I like that – and I like the album so much and want you to hear it (if you haven’t) I’m going to link to all of the remaining songs on the album.
Also – at a time when we mourn what feels like the end of the album; a time when people seem to lack the patience to digest and album, this is most definitely an album, a unified collection of songs. It’s just 40 minutes long. An almost perfect length for an album.