Sunday, February 13, 2011

PJ Harvey's Let England Shake

New Music this Week
Album Review
by Nick Parker

All the press frenzy about PJ Harvey's 8th album, Let England Shake (Vagrant), some supportive and some disparaging, seems to recognize that what we are dealing with here is certainly a major release for 2011. The more extreme the reviews have gone either way (and they have been extreme: a 10/10 from the NME for example, their first for several years), the more they seem to have tacitly agreed that PJ Harvey is one of the most important artists on the UK music scene, and has been for some time.

An Important New Album. Out Tuesday.

PJ Harvey - The Words That Maketh Murder
by VagrantRecords

Perhaps the reason everyone has been so stirred-up by this album has something to do with its scale. Like Arcade Fire's The Suburbs (our review - the record was a contender for many for album of the year in 2010), "Let England Shake" is for better or worse a collection with a clear, unified vision. It is that so rare and frail a thing: a real album.

RECORDS WITH THEMES - The idea that the tracks on an album should all fit under one broad theme (in this case reflections on Harvey's nation of England), and that we should really immerse ourselves in the project in its entirety, has long been lamented as a relic of our technological past. Whether or not Let England Shake is worth a perfect 10, Harvey's attempt to pull our attention away from the four-minute experience you get from iTunes to Sirius to Pandora, to the forty-minute one you can get out of an album, deserves our support. This album asks that listeners deeply engage with something that we all share, to a greater or lesser degree: an ambivalent connection to some kind of community.

THE PJ HARVEY / ARCADE FIRE COMPARISON - This comparison "The Suburbs" fits too in the distinction between that album's huge overarching pretensions but often small-scale song writing. Even more than the Arcade Fire's release in fact, many of these songs remain slight where the topic could have easily pushed Harvey to produce 'epic' tracks – usually just a route to sounding pretentious. Instead tracks like "England" are built on small sounds and delicate writing about Harvey's indistinct sense of sadness at her own nationality.

PJ Harvey's Nationalist Spirit unfolds

One of the criticisms of the album seems to be that Harvey has forgotten what she does best, which is write scorching, vicious songs about desire and passion. For me there seems plenty of passion in this album though, but Harvey gives us an image of her relationship to her nation that is so complex and thoughtful that it's sometimes hard work to see all of its facets.

I suppose you can look at that complexity as obscuring the simple pleasure of enjoying Harvey's music, but for me it gives the album a lot of depth, and means that those who've dismissed "Let England Shake" as "obvious" (The New Yorker) are either much smarter than me, or are seeing black and white where there are actually shades of grey.

I will admit that I was worried initially that this project would overwhelm even a prodigious talent like Harvey's. The album does have its moments of grating misdirection and clumsy expression. It is not her best work either, despite the accolades it will no doubt receive.

"Let England Shake" though, is an album you'd be crazy to miss out on hearing. It manages, remarkably, to make you think about very personal issues of home and homeland, as if you were connecting with Harvey alone. At the same time, it's as grand a project as anything I've seen in many months.

A performance of PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake" will be live webcasted from France at 3pm EST on Monday 3/14, at

[* Editor's Note: Nick Parker is RSL's British Writer and a devoted follower of PJ Harvey's music. He covers the UK album scene with vigor from new home in Lynn, MA. Parker recently appeared on a video podcast interview with Exposed Urban where he discussed his role with our website.]

PJ Harvey
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