2.10.2011

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Good luck pinning PJ Harvey down, if that's your angle. It's not going to happen. Harvey continues to dance around the various musical styles she has employed throughout her career, never settling for more than an album on any specific sound. Whether it was the under-produced clatter of Rid of Me and Dry or the pop-addled delight of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey held her own creating lyric driven sonic poetry that combined punk, pop and hints of jazz and blues. I fell in love with her through the aforementioned Stories... and subsequently sought out the rest of her catalog. The earlier stuff, that is the stuff more than eleven years old now, was harder for me to get into, only because I came to expect a certain thing. And the point, the way PJ Harvey excels, is through keeping us guessing. Let England Shake leans more tightly toward my first impression through Stories..., but it's also unique and surprising in its own right. I'll get this part out of the way: It's excellent. Really. I know I always say that, but minus a couple of a "eh" tracks, this is a phenomenal album.

This time, PJ Harvey is melancholy. Most of Let England Shake takes place in a space of lamentation, contemplation and distance. The album is visceral, dealing frankly with death, war, time and the future. Harvey maintains a strong political stance throughout, touching on the decay of the environment, especially in "Written On The Forehead." But it's a grown up album, looking forward, feeling responsible and seeing the world as a large place beyond the body, beyond the individual. The lyrics are poignant and range from essential to haunting, but what really amazes is how big many of the songs get. The arrangements are lush and intriguing. Often these songs utilize just three instruments, plus vocals, but they end up feeling infinitely larger. Even as the tone remains mostly staid, calm, nearly sad at times, the music feels passionate. This isn't the passion of "This Is Love" or "Man-Size," the rock is further away. This is the passion in implication, in the words. Still, there are a few upbeat tracks too, most notably "Bitter Branches," which, pardon the expression, fucking kicks the shit out your face.

Throughout Let England Shake, the composition is more traditionally poppy. There isn't a lot of experimentation, no dissonant sounds thrust toward the listener like a bee-hive on a stick. The music is understandable, strong and unimposing. And that doesn't work for everybody. But, Harvey's lyrics are so strong that it often does, resulting in a unique expression that is set-to-music, rather than being music-with-words, if you understand the distinction. Her voice is incredible as always, though on a couple tracks the mix and effects send her into a faux-Bjork territory that I found distracting. But even that is a minor issue that doesn't warrant any demerits, especially when there are so many memorable tracks that immediately catch your ear. "The Glorious Land," "The Words That Maketh Murder" and "England" each intrigue and haunt in a unique way, leaving no image or poetic phrasing unturned. Harvey has received a lot of praise for this album on the other side of the pond already, and it really is amazing. You can check out Let England Shake in its entirety through NPR's First Listen, and the album comes out officially on Valentine's Day in the U.K. and on the 15th here in the States.

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