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CD review: PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’

The artist’s latest is a scathing indictment—and a return to form

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PJ Harvey’s latest CD is also one of her best.
Annie Zaleski

Polly Jean Harvey’s unfettered honesty has always been her calling card—from the emotional brutality of 1992’s Dry to the romantic guitar-glory of 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Yet over the past decade, Harvey’s work has felt much more hesitant; 2007’s White Chalk, which found her crooning in an unsettling upper register, was as frail as bone china.

It’s heartening, then, that even Let England Shake’s most vulnerable moments sound confident—despite the fact that Harvey’s heart isn’t on the line. Instead, she uses her well-honed analytical skills to examine (and demythologize) England’s history and place in the world. Harvey writes with grace and elegance about the effects of war and history’s horrors. “Arms and legs were in the trees” is a particularly vivid image in “The Words That Maketh Murder,” sung from the perspective of a soldier mired in bloody battles. And on a song simply titled “England,” the protagonist examines her own love-hate relationship with the country: “I cannot go on as I am/I cannot leave.” Harvey never sugarcoats or apologizes for her ambivalence or distress, and the lyrical imagery is moving in its simplicity.

The Details

PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
Four and a half stars

Shake’s music, another collaboration with longtime Harvey associates John Parish, Flood and Mick Harvey, is just as lovely. The songs take cues from goth, folk, gospel, world, jazz, rock and orchestral music. An off-kilter trumpet plays a call to arms on “Maketh.” Elsewhere Harvey unleashes a balletic opera croon and mournful saxophone fuzz, while rich percussion, rumbling harmonies and oceanic guitar create undercurrents of darkness throughout. Like other Harvey albums, Shake is its own genre. But her songwriting is as strong and inspired as it’s been in years. This album is easily one of her best.

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