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PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

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Artist: PJ Harvey

Album: Let England Shake

Label: Vagrant

Review date: Feb. 15, 2011

PJ Harvey broke from the blues on her 2009 album, White Chalk, unearthing a high, ghostly child’s voice to lead her through misty folk-ish landscapes. She ditched her guitar entirely, switching instead to autoharps, pianos and various obscure stringed instruments. It was a bold step away from the feral growl, the uncompromising slash and clatter that had run through her earlier works. It was also largely successful. You had to admire her not just for the results, but for the courage to change.

Now, two years later, Harvey has again switched things up, retaining the high voice and some of the autoharps, and less of the spectral chill. Her eighth album, Let England Shake, is, as the title implies, her most overtly political work yet, full of harrowing images of war and suffering. She wrote the words first, according to interviews, and they are intermittently very powerful. However, their bleakness is matched to an ingratiating, ill-considered mess of musical sounds.

Let’s start with her voice, which is, again, shaped into a thin, high, keening tone, with hardly any vibrato and or guttural rough edges. It’s not much different, especially on “Hanging in the Wire,” from the voice of White Chalk. Yet even here, there’s a sense of forced sweetness that never bled through “Dear Darkness”’s bleak contemplations. The childlike voice is no longer shiver-inducing, but more like a 12-year-old singing at a recital, eager-to-please, over-dramatic and way too impressed with itself.

Moreover, Harvey’s voice is set, more often than not, in arrangements that seem calculatedly complacent and easy, almost as a way of setting off their lyrical audacity. “Let England Shake” is sung lightly and without friction over a bed of airy piano notes, the blare of ska-ish horns. There’s a disconcerting sense of manipulation here, like when someone smiles at you too hard. It feels like pop. It reads like a manifesto. It doesn’t really work as either.

“Let England Shake” is, to my ears at least, almost unlistenable, the worst song on an altogether disappointing album. It gets better from here, but remains weightless, intermittently annoying, full of softening, sweetening touches. The sing-song chorus to “Glorious Land” doesn’t just contradict the song’s war-like imagery; it makes it ridiculous and faintly dishonest. It’s far more jarring than the hunting horn that intrudes, at odd intervals, out of key and with no obvious connection to the song. Similarly, the happy horn shuffle that punctuates “The Words that Maketh Murder” almost upends the album’s strongest effort. It was a pretty good song until the chorus line started kicking.

Harvey uses a number of samples to illustrate some obscure point about English multiculturalism. Besides the hunting horn, there are also bits of Arabic music, a throwaway reference to “Summertime Blues” and an extended quotation from Niney the Observer’s “Blood and Fire.” The problem is that Harvey is not really a cut-and-paste artist. Other than eliciting the “oh, that song” response, these additions don’t seem to raise the ante very much.

The juxtaposition of harsh imagery and bouncy tunes feels part of some larger statement, perhaps the complacency with which we tolerate war and cruelty. Still, as music, it just doesn’t work. It leads the listener into blind alleys, manipulates the emotions in odd and unsettling ways, and makes it impossible to get a grip on how you feel about any of these songs. If Harvey was aiming for a slightly nauseated ambivalence, then she should be congratulated. If she wanted to move or enlighten, Let England Shake falls short.

By Jennifer Kelly

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