Her eighth studio album, Let England Shake is British songstress PJ Harvey's strongest work since 2000's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and quite possibly one of the most intriguing full-lengths one is likely to hear this year. On the surface, the songs are built from the most delicate of instruments. Harvey's main instrument of choice is the autoharp, which I think is a tiny, slightly mechanized version of the harp we all know and love, but I don't really know for sure. Two of the songs, the title track and "Bitter Branches," depend heavily on the xylophone. Rockers are for the most part absent from the menu, with any guitar that appears being of the acoustic variety. Despite the slight instrumentation, the album is harsh and bruising.
Harvey was apparently inspired by images of British soldiers in World Wars I and II, drawing parallels to the several wars currently taking place in the contemporary Middle East. Therefore, the beautiful instruments are accompanied by haunting and, at times, punishing lyrics. "The Words That Maketh Murder" cites soldiers who "fall like lumps of meat" and "arms and legs in the trees." "The Colour of the Earth" is written from the perspective of a soldier whose best friend is "nothing more than a pile of bones." And a song called "In the Dark Places?" Well, it certainly isn't about happiness and light either.
It is a tribute to the work of Harvey and her co-conspirators (notably Mick Harvey and John Parish, with whom she collaborated on a 2009 album that was unfortunately not worth the sum of its parts) that the album, despite its heady subject matter never feels dank or depressing. Make no bones about it, the thing is a serious listen and you better be in the right mood when you push play. But if you were to block out the words for a minute, the song "Let England Shake" features a driving percussion, lively acoustic guitar, and a melody that would be sure to get your head nodding. The autoharp-and-handclap foundation of "The Words That Maketh Murder" are tremendously catchy, and the horns and bassy vocals during the chorus are incredible fun. "Bitter Branches" is probably the hardest-rocking cut, with a wailing Harvey accompanied by thunder drums and surging (and plugged-in) ax work.
Of course, the primary instrument on any PJ Harvey album is the singer's voice itself. On this album, she offers a straight-forward presentation that puts the focus on the deeply cinematic imagery contained within the lyrics. She busts out a damaged vibrato to deliver pieces like "Written on the Forehead" and "England." "Bitter Branches" and "The Words That Maketh Murder" find her taking a more forceful approach. On "The Colour of the Earth," her voice is, for the most part, a member of the background as lead vocals go to Mick Harvey, who sings a tune that sounds like one of the most heartbreaking Irish folk songs of all time.
For people who were fans of the Harvey of old, the one who screeched and wailed on albums such as her opening one-two punch Dry and Rid of Me (as well as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and Uh Huh Her to a certain extent), you could be a little disappointed here. Coming off of her 2007 almost-piano-only album White Chalk (which was even more spare and lyrically frightening by a long shot), she is defintely in "a dark place." Still, if you are prepared for an album with imagery that will stick in your head for days and simplistic melodies built from instruments that require only minimal electronic assistance, this is an album that will provide you with ample enjoyment.