When I wrote about PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, I opened by saying, “I’ve never given PJ Harvey a chance. But that hasn’t stopped me talking shit about her music”. But I also wrote, “I also admit that I’m not nearly informed enough to dislike her music as much as I do.” At the closing of that album, my attitude had changed to, “I haven’t done a complete 180 and come to love her music, but I’ve definitely softened.” Softened enough to give her another go. This time with something a little more revered and something a little more representative of where she’s at today. This time with Let England Shake.
The title track and The Last Living Rose definitely sound like I’m dealing with a more thoughtful Polly Jean. Everything I liked about Stories From the City came from the louder, rockier numbers. But here, she’s figured out how to get the most from a little restraint. Where that came off as boring on the older album, Let England Shake sounds more deliberate and smouldering.
With its cavalry bugle call in the intro, and having been told this was an anti-war album, I was a little concerned about being hit over the head by the message of The Glorious Land. And it doesn’t disappoint. Full of chanted rabble-rousers like, “Oh, America. Oh, England. How is our glorious country sown ? Not with wheat and corn. How is our glorious land bestowed?” OK, PJ, we get it. You could at least try to make the melody work with the bugle call, instead of just lazily laying it on top.
But that’s the epitome of subtly compared to The Words That Maketh Murder. Lyrics usually have very little to do with whether or not I like a song. But when I hear a grown woman spouting things on such a high school, faux-intellectual rebel level, it just shits me. “The words that make, the words that make murder. What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” Yep, PJ Harvey wrote that and didn’t think that she needed a second draft.
OK, I need to stop listening to the lyrics, because the overall sound of Let England Shake is the best, most consistent I’ve heard from Harvey in my vast, two album experience with her work. On Battleship Hill is like the song you’d hear in the build up to the final gunfight in Sergio Leoni spaghetti western. Sure, when the bullets start flying, the score will need to be a little more frenetic, but as the gunfighters get ready to face off against each other, On Battleship Hill is the perfect soundtrack.
Bitter Branches sounds like it could have come directly from Stories From the City. But luckily, it sounds like it comes from one of the good bits of Stories From the City. With just enough guitar to fill in the blanks and make sure it’s not too empty, this song is all about the driving drums and Harvey’s voice, which is at its best.
Clocking in at 3:40, I wonder what took longer with Written on the Forehead, for Harvey to write it, for Harvey to record it, or for me to listen to it. To call it tossed off would be an insult to all tossers out there. I don’t even l know if there’s enough there for it to qualify as a song.
I’ve crapped a lot on this album, but the truth is, I actually liked more than I didn’t. The first half of Let England Shake holds most of the gold, with a few too many meandering tangents in the second. But when PJ Harvey gets this album right, she gets it really right. It turns out I like her most when there’s at least a little energy and drive to her music. Now, after doubling my exposure to PJ Harvey, I’ll quote a great writer who once said, “I haven’t done a complete 180 and come to love her music, but I’ve definitely softened”… A little more.