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PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

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PJ Harvey

Let England Shake

Vagrant

A solid few days of digesting PJ Harvey’s new Let England Shake sent this pair of ears back to her entire catalog. Something was different on this album, her eighth—not bad or off; it merely tickled a different place on the internal emotional feelers. The musical approach is modestly augmented. Ex-Bad Seed drummer Mick Harvey remains, as does Harvey veteran multi-instrumentalist John Parrish with the occasional addition of Jean-Marc Butty, but the approach is a tad pastoral—not quite Lief and Liege British folk, but muted guitars and reserved rhythms that feel like the morning sun slowly cutting through a fog-blanketed landscape. A bugle reveille dots “The Glorious Land’s” gentle rustle. A strummed autoharp forms the skittish melody of “The Words That Maketh Murder.” A hushed piano and percussive wiggle sculpt the lilting melody of “Hanging in the Wire,” through which Harvey’s voice—often high and keening here—pierces like a thorn on a rose’s stem pricking the palm.

Of course, Harvey has always dramatically played dynamics off each other; the stark new thing here is her lyrical focus. Shake is an album about her home country, which she slices into with the same steely precision with which she has cut into human feelings. Harvey mines emotional states as acutely as novelist Mary Gaitskill, and in songs such as “Teclo” she plummets into remorse with utter fearlessness. On Shake she turns that feral songwriting talent on England’s history and identity, a country “weighted down with silent dead,” “the grey, damp filthiness of ages,” a place that “leaves a taste,/ a bitter one.”

Shake could be an accomplishment that stands up there alongside the Mekons’ Fear and Whiskey: not for its sound, but for the singular melding of its hybrid musical ideas and lyrical throughline—and for being so instantly familiar yet entirely its own unique thing. From the infectious lament “The Last Living Rose” through the haunting “All and Everyone” (one of many explorations of World War I) and on to the majestic “Hanging in the Wire,” Shake does just what its title promises: rattles the senses and perturbs the sleep, whether from the clarity of its lyrics’ imagery or their gorgeous musical settings. This immediate potency may be its biggest hurdle: given its heaviness, no idea how easy it’ll be to return to—This Kind of Punishment’s In the Same Room is an album I adore but can only bring myself to listen to every so often. At the moment, Let England Shake feels like it could be one of those.

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