I was planning to review another, more recently released album this week, but after watching Adele’s 21 win best album at the Brits I decided that this would be more worthwhile. Though 21 is not a bad album I couldn’t escape the feeling that, while Adele’s voice and personality shine throughout, musically and lyrically it is really quite weak. This review is therefore dedicated to another nominee with undoubtedly the best album of 2011: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake.
Just 10 seconds in and you hear the first lyrics: “The west’s asleep, let England shake. Weighted down by silent dead.” It’s from this moment on that you begin to realise this is no ordinary album. This isn’t an album of love, filled with talk of nameless boys or how much fun dancing in generic clubs is. This is an album of war, nationalism, sorrow and death.
While the lyrical context may scare some people away, the music itself shouldn’t. The opening title track has a bleak, almost helpless sound, yet the melody itself is memorable and uplifting. The rest of the album is equally well written. On first listen, one might mistake The Glorious Land for an Arcade Fire track until you listen to the lyrics, which portray England as a war-torn dystopia whose “fruit is deformed children.”
Throughout much of the album the music and lyrics feel like separate entities, often portraying quite different emotions. However, I feel this only helps to show Harvey’s conflicting emotions towards the country that she loves and the bitter wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) in which it has become embroiled. Harvey has stated in many interviews that these are topics she feels strongly about and the manner in which she explains them throughout the album is startling. She uses words that few people would struggle to understand, but combines them to tell remarkable stories. The Words That Maketh Murder is written from the perspective of a young soldier who fears and doubts the commands he must follow. The Colour of the Earth expresses grief at the loss of a dear friend who was shot down and never identified.
While lyrically stunning, this is Harvey’s musically strongest album since Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The production is often quite simplistic, yet there are many striking melodies. On Battleship Hill starts with basic guitar chords before decaying away into Harvey’s haunting vocal runs. The notes are extremely high, but I struggled to decide whether Harvey was straining to reach them. In the following track England her voice does break at times, yet this is underlain by discordant vocal samples, creating an incredibly evocative atmosphere.
In summary, Let England Shake is something quite special. Harvey has penned a work which deals with important issues and yet would be impossible to reproduce using written word alone. She takes a concept close to her heart and runs with it for 40 minutes of unforgettable music. For me, many albums come and go. Let England Shake, however, is so well written and produced and has had so much thought poured into it that I take pleasure in proclaiming it a masterpiece, and it takes its place among the likes of Nevermind and Elephant as one of my favourite albums of all time. Seriously, give it a listen.
Favourite tracks: The Last Living Rose, Let England Shake, On Battleship Hill
Least favourite track: Bitter Branches