On “The Words That Maketh Murder,” the fourth track from PJ Harvey’s eighth album Let England Shake, there is a repeated line during the track’s coda taken from Eddie Cochrane’s “Summer Time Blues.” Polly Jean and company slyly ask, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”
Originally, of course, the line was meant to be more sarcastic in its desperation. Here it’s just desperate and kind of ironic. Still, though, it points out an important dynamic present throughout Let England Shake. Whether it uses its minimalist rock trappings to space out its own sound, or clutter up its body with superficialities; the unbalanced, off-putting result may be the album’s greatest success.
PJ Harvey has always had a satisfying way of reinventing herself. She never really leaves any one version of herself behind before emerging as something different. Instead, she finds ways to layer her methods and talents, until what you have is a feat of scary accomplishment that pretty much always has something to say, and has a plethora of captivating ways to say it.
Serving as something of an aggressive eulogy for her home country of England, Let England Shake’s structure is sort of ossified and zombie-like. However, through its finer points, it is able to deftly blend the vividness and conviction of a protest album with all of the yearning of what just has to be a genuine patriotic outcry. Existing in a starkly stripped down, yet completely eclectic, level of consciousness, Let England Shake is Harvey’s most accomplished work in years, and maybe to date.
A dimly lit, lo-fi hybrid, Shake takes its cue from some of Harvey’s most successful past works, but has its own uniquely brash textures. She can curiously find ways to recreate a feeling while engineering a different technique. The sinister pseudo-blues on album opener “Let England Shake,” for instance, don’t so much set the tone for the album as much as pave the way for the odd blend of purposefully contrasting elements that will follow–which is key.
A rich mixture of stacked sounds finds even Harvey herself sporting the old saxomophone more than once on the album–though perhaps most effectively on the haunting “The Last Living Rose.” Shake’s atmosphere seems to encourage that kind of just-left-of-normal experimentation. The results are almost never perfectly rounded, which is both the point and one of Shake’s largest attributes. It easily vacillates between gloomy aesthetics and raucous rhythms, creating the loosest sort of rock record that is not only venomous, but also subversive.
It’s Harvey’s status as an iconoclast that imparts the album with its sharp recognition. What’s more intriguing, though, is her lack of vindication. She takes no pleasure in being right about all of these domestic maladies, as they are all systemic and well-rooted. Tracks like the resonant “Bitter Branches,” or the prickly rocking “Written on the Forehead” speak to this point. It adds a separate layer of tragedy to the album’s already jilted tone, and acts as a companion to some of the more potent doses of cynicism.
On the war lament “In the Dark Places” when Harvey cries, “So our young men hid with guns in the dirt, and in the dark places,” you remember an earlier line uttered, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” It sounds like something of a winking joke, only she’s not laughing. Not at all.