Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Let England Shake, PJ Harvey (2011)

I have long admired the work of PJ Harvey. Few female artists have constantly moved forward in their vocals, lyrics, and musical sound. Harvey started out with an alternative sound. A screaming, lo-fi feminist. Over time, she found a voice that didn't need to be hidden under static and crashing guitar. Harvey found a middle ground. For a few years, she experimented with this sound. Then, it was time for another change. Harvey went for a piano driven record. From there, where was Harvey to go? It seems she has answered these questions this year. With the release of Let England Shake, Harvey is showing she is restless, angry, and still knows where her voice is located.

Let England Shake is meant to be viewed as a song cycle. I discovered this from reading a few interviews and reviews. I listened to Let England Shake for about two weeks before posting this review. After two weeks, I'm still not entirely sure where I stand on this album. In fact, I don't imagine this review will end with a grade. How does one rate something they still aren't totally comfortable with? And, does Harvey want me to be comfortable? My guess... she has never been comfortable and sees no reason why any of her listeners should be.

Harvey's 2000 release, Stories From the City Stories From the Sea, will always remain my favorite of her albums. This is an album about location, New York City. Every track is an anthem to a night, an afternoon, a dream, a certain spot Harvey experienced in New York City. The album makes you forget Harvey isn't American. In many ways, it may be the best album about the city. Does it take an outsider to really see a place for what it is? Harvey doesn't think so. She is no longer singing as an outsider. On Let England Shake, Harvey has written her most (and only?) British album. An album about war. Mostly focused on the Great War. A song cycle about World War I? I know, doesn't sound right for Harvey. This is where all the trouble starts.

Harvey has never been one to shy away from dark, heavy lyrics. On Let England Shake, Harvey continues to throw violence at our ears. Images of soldiers dying, protests, and battles litter this album. Harvey isn't just singing about World War I, she's responding to today's war. She's responding to the way war doesn't change and doesn't change anything. But, at the same time, it isn't this simple. Harvey understands it is much more complicated. Almost an impossible concept to understand.

The album sounds like a collage. Many of the lyrics are overtop music that feels cut and paste. Music that doesn't always feel in the right place. At one point in the album, a war trumpet is heard a few times. It is out of place. Totally distracting. There is something so Dadaist about this album. I thought this after my first few listens. Then reading the Pitchfork review this evening, I was intrigued to see the reviewer mention surrealism and Dadaism as movements in response to World War I. I'm not sure they were pushing this theory far enough to suggest the album borrows from these movements. But, I believe Harvey was very much aware of what she was doing.

Let England Shake isn't one of those albums you sing along to. It isn't one of those albums you tell your friends about. It is one of those albums you respect. The type of album that sticks in your head longer than most albums. Harvey can be funny, serious, and dark. Harvey is an artist on a mission. She wants us to wake up. She wants to shake us. Music isn't always meant to be light. Music has a place alongside the masterpieces hanging in museums. Let England Shake is very much a composition depicting the scene of a battle.

Harvey is working with a war photographer to create a video for each song from the album. As of now, three of these videos have been released. They're sparse. Again, Harvey is letting the music do all the talking. But, this album wants to be noticed. Harvey wants to be heard.

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