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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Let England Shake

PJ Harvey has often made great indie pop, and great experimental albums - but rarely both at once; a few times neither.  Let England Shake is her masterwork, and an early candidate for Album of 2011.  It is, firstly, strange - uncanny - even - and indeed, her unheimlich take on being at home is the purpose of this song cycle, which seeks to locate the roses and fogs of England amidst the carnage the nation's imperial aims have caused; England, for Harvey is a self-harmer.  Harvey's vocals here are falsetto, tremolo - weird - a bit Mercury Rev, a bit J Newsom.  The off-kilter retro stylings of the songs (including male backing singers that sound positively Lawrence Welk) lend a timeless, thrilling, unsettling quality - as if the inspiring soundtrack was The Singing Detective.

Writing of the bloodbath of World Wars - and using 'Strange Fruit' as a model (according to interviews) - Harvey seeks to work through the paradox of an England that is "drunken beatings" and lovely gardens, that is Suez, Iraq, and a lost childhood worth (possibly) dying for.  As such, it is a complicated, moving, upsetting, and supremely intelligent essay on nationhood, national pride, and artistic integrity.  At once firmly political, and yet aesthetically invigorating, this is modern work that stands comparison to the best British achievements, since 1945, in film, literature, or art.  Time to admit what many have long suspected - Harvey is not just a musical act - she is a serious artist - and this album is a work of genius, one that will be studied in all future investigations of this period.
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