Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Take my problem to the United Nations: some collected thoughts on PJ Harvey's Let England Shake

We're aware there are reviews beginning to circulate, one big notable one in particular, but these notes are made in isolation of those so if any points get repeated from elsewhere it's pure coincidence.

- There's something intrinsically instructive about that title, never mind the contents that back it up. For most of her now ten album career, if you count the two John Parish collaborations (and he's an ever present here), Polly's been an openly American-facing songwriter, whether overtly on the NYC love travelogue Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea or implied through the cleaving to influences - Beefheart, art-blues, Albini, fashion glam. Yet this is her second album to be fixed, and fixated, within her homeland, not so much audibly as with White Chalk's landscapes of dark ghostliness but, as she admits herself, because she felt it was time to look outwardly and deduce how her home nation stands in the world rather than mine her bleak soul.

- Oddly for an album many assume to be opening up modern war wounds there's a lot of references to the Gallipoli/Dardanelles campaign of 1916, until you clock that this was an ultimately failed front. "The mounds of Bolton's Ridge", named in the clanging, limpid air overseeing of a mass death scene All And Everyone, was a main landing point for the Anzac forces, who dug their trenches on Battleship Hill (On Battleship Hill) as referenced in The Colour Of The Earth by vocals from Mick Harvey, on a Harvey album for the first time since Stories From The City... And, viewers of that famous Andrew Marr Show clip will note, Gallipoli is a key Turkish outpost on the road to, as it would have been then, Constantinople (not Istanbul). Written On The Forehead ("war is here in our beloved city"), which samples Niney The Observer's apocalyptic reggae classic Blood And Fire, relocates us to the Persian Gulf, with references to date palms and "throwing dinars at the belly-dancers". It may be an album contemplative of its place, but that place is often only inhabited by the British rather than located there.

- There's possibly deliberate musical touches of Polly's last decade - Bitter Branches recalls Stories From The City..., Hanging In The Wire and some recursion of her highest register vocalising suggests White Chalk, The Last Living Rose is like a demastered Uh Huh Her - but there's plenty of new stuff. Autoharps in various tunings lead many tracks, subtle waves of Cocteaus guitar, melodies pressed into abstract ways.

- The Glorious Land seems intended to sound like an evocation of Soviet poster declarations, what with the references to "iron ploughs" and the marching repetitive rhythm, but overlaid with very US military Reveilles and call and response accusations. Then it ends with as cutting a set of couplets as anyone will produce. The Words That Maketh Murder, a more direct outlining of the horrors of battle all the more for how light Polly's vocal is in comparison, has a neat reappropriation too, and England has what seems to be a muezzin under the intro. All very telling and the sort of response that justifies tackling such an emotive subject with so much water under the bridge since the artistic snap judgement stage passed.

- With an impending TV On The Radio album announced yesterday, three former STN album of the year winners are set to release albums this year (the others being Okkervil River and Los Campesinos!), not to mention all the other previously outlined releases to come, it's going to be a busy year. Let England Shake has just set it all a hell of a high water mark.

Let England Shake is released on Monday, Valentine's Day for an album where all isn't fair in love (f)or war. Stream it here.

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