Album Review: PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Here’s a game you can play with PJ Harvey albums: spot the dirty bit.

Apt title for a bartender's website...

Sheela-Na-Gig, from her debut album, Dry, addresses female gargoyles that yank open their privates; on the demo track Reeling she demands that Robert De Niro sit on her face; the title track of 2009’s A Woman a Man Walked By, the singer’s second long-playing collaboration with musician-producer John Parish, has her threatening to bum-rape some poor fella.

There are examples elsewhere of Polly Jean shoving her perviness into listeners’ ears, but none pop up on Let England Shake, which wholly concerns itself with the country and its wars of this century and the last.

That’s not to say it’s not graphic in its own way; soldiers fall “like lumps of meat”, limbs adorn trees, wives wait in vain for their men to come home, and children become orphaned and disfigured.

This ain’t a light-hearted work… and yet it’s really kinda pretty. The melodies on The Last Living Rose and Written on the Forehead are gorgeous, Harvey’s voice is higher and – ironically – less combative that it once was, and the arrangements are deceptively simple, flecked with intriguing samples. (The discordant hunting bugle on The Glorious Land is thrilling: it sounds like the opening of a spy’s coded broadcast over shortwave radio).

The production – by Parish, Harvey, Mick Harvey (no relation) and Flood – summons a warm haze that brings to mind the heat-shimmer on the sands of battle arenas in the Middle East and Turkey – the latter being the location of World War One’s savage Gallipoli campaign, which haunts the album throughout.

Which all might seem – eek! – over-worthy and really hard work to get through. But Let England Shake ain’t a BBC4 documentary; nor is it a protest album (at least not in the traditional sense. Harvey is a sad and angry observer rather than a screaming protester). It’s an accessible, intelligent rock album. And a bloody good one at that.