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PJ Harvey delivers a bleak masterpiece
from the trenches

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
(Universal / Island)
4 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: March 11, 2011
PJ Harvey

Review by Tony Bonyata

War may be hell, but on PJ Harvey's eighth full-length album, Let England Shake, she has a way of making it sound absolutely heavenly. Not in lyrical content, mind you - as her primary theme for the record deals with loss, mutilation, death and the bloody atrocities of World War I - but in the spirit and strength of her music.

It may be light years away from the edgy-aggro alternative rock that she built her career on nearly 20 years ago with her first two amazing efforts, Dry and Rid Of Me, but it's no less affecting.

The material was written over the last few years and recorded last spring in just a little over a month in an old church-turned-arts venue in her hometown of Dorset, England. The early workings for many of these songs began just as her previous album White Chalk was released in 2007, yet they're musically more fleshed-out with Harvey trading in the piano that dominated her last effort in exchange for the autoharp, which she used as her primary instrument when writing many of these original early demos.

Like the brutalities of war itself, the themes here are often just as graphic, as witnessed on the album's first single "The Words That Maketh Murder" where Harvey cries out "I've seen and done things I want to forget. I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat; blown and shot out beyond belief. Arms and legs were in the trees." Surprisingly two of the album's most gorgeous numbers "All And Everyone" and "On Battleship Hill," which channel the likes of Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Nick Cave (if not altogether musically, then at least in a dark and otherworldly sense), also can't manage to escape the nightmares of the battlefield, as she sings from the respective numbers, "When you rolled a smoke or told a joke, Death was in the laughter and drinking water," and then ruminating from an English battleground some 80 years later after the fact, she mournfully coos "Jagged mountains, jutting out, cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth. On Battleship Hill I hear the wind say 'Cruel nature has won again'."

This is all dark, challenging and heady stuff indeed, but as hellish as the physical act of war is, it often has a way of also inspiring monumental and controversial works in the worlds of literature, art, film and music (i.e. Tolstoy's 1869 novel War and Peace, Picasso's Guernica painting from 1937, Jean Renoir's 1927 film "Grand Illusion," etc.). And sounding as if she had just emerged from the muddy trenches, PJ Harvey delivers one of these important modern works on Let England ShakeĠ. I won't be so bold as to say it's her best work, but I'm certainly not afraid to admit that it's my favorite... and considering her commanding canon of great albums over the last two decades that's saying enough.

Related articles:

U2 / PJ Harvey Concert review - Milwaukee, WI - May 2001
PJ Harvey - Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea Album review
PJ Harvey - Is This Desire? Album review

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