To announce that she was releasing a new album last year, PJ Harvey didn’t go down the usual road of putting a post on her website or Facebook page. No, instead of going with convention she decided it would be a good idea to appear on the Andrew Marr political Sunday morning show wearing a massive headdress and play an autoharp over the tune of ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’. The then PM Gordon Brown was completely confused.
Her rendition of new album opener ‘Let England Shake’ would not have shocked any die-hard PJ fan – musically it is quirky and mysterious and not unlike some of the more surreal moments on her 1995 album To Bring You My Love. It was the fact she appeared on a political programme like Andrew Marr’s that was the biggest statement of intent. After her last album White Chalk, a collection of hushed piano laments, it was unclear whether PJ would ever stand up and play the guitar again outside of her collaborations with John Parish. Her performance of ‘Let England Shake’ confirmed that she was going for a slightly different, off-kilter and beefed up sound. Oh, and it also happened to prove that she was doing a political album.
Now, political albums, or ones that have tried to say something about the society we live in, haven’t fared so well recently. Mostly it’s been tackled by rowdy working-class boys who think they have something groundbreaking to say about the world. But if anyone could achieve the impossible (i.e. giving out a message without being preachy and couple this with genuinely good tunes) it was PJ. The opener was just the start. ‘The Last Living Rose’ at first sounds like a love-song to her home land but the muted guitars and strange horn section cover up the darkness within: “The damp grey filthiness of ages, fog rolling down behind the mountains and on the graveyards and dead sea captains.” Somehow she seems to admire the place but it is shrouded in a deep ambiguity. The main message is often linked to ideas surrounding war. Both ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ are punctuated by Harvey’s ever-changing vocal tone and this draws attention, particularly on the latter song, to her point: she sings of soldiers falling like “lumps of meat”, a simile that could be used to describe the pointlessness of any war in history despite the fact Harvey is looking to the past for her inspiration, specifically the First World War. The best thing is the whole album passes with beautiful imagery and not tired war clichés.
Harvey’s sound on this album is perhaps more affecting and shocking than all the sound effects in the world and its point is conveyed both masterly and effortlessly. It sounds like nothing she’s done before but isn’t alienating either. It’s a beautifully ambiguous album about the horrors of war and it’s that juxtaposition that makes this one of her finer works.
9 OUT OF 10
I wrote this for Electric Magzine.