I got into a discussion with someone recently over the validity of this latest release from Polly Jean Harvey. They seemed almost offended that PJ would use the overall theme of war in writing her new release as if it were some sort of parlor trick to try and make “important music”. I argued that Roger Waters has built an entire career of writing such music and no one has made the same accusation to him. Living in the UK or anywhere in Europe is not the same as living in North America. There, WWII is not a distant faded memory because from their architecture to their lifestyles, Europeans for the most part know how to hold on to and preserve their culture and history unlike here, where our “sense of history” is reset with every new Ipad release.
Let England Shake is far from Ms. Harvey's best release but any release from PJ is a welcome interruption from the dearth of despair of modern music. Again recruiting John Parish and Mick Harvey (no relation), the album comes across as more of a Parish/Harvey collaborative release like 2009's A Woman A Man Walked By, with Parish's vocals featured on 9 of the 12 tracks. Despite the common lyrical themes, the flow in the music is somewhat disjointed, like 2004's Uh Huh Her. There's an overall lack of cohesion with this release that stands the polar opposite of her last release, 2007's White Chalk, a grossly underrated and misunderstood album.
Indeed, the strongest tracks on Let England Shake are the ones that didn't even make it to the album - “The Nightingale” and “The Guns Called Me Back Again”. Parish's vocal contributions on the album often come across as an intrusion rather than an enhancement, with the exception of “Bitter Branches”, one of the album's standouts and “England”, where PJ is accompanied only briefly by Parish and throughout by a traditional Iraqi vocalist. This album also marks the first time PJ has played saxophone on any of her releases, an instument she hadn't played since childhood. That really says it all. Most "artists" are content to shit out an album a year learning nothing more than the handful of words they stole from a thesaurus (and forgetting them shortly after). If PJ Harvey wants to write an album of Balkan folk songs with the lyrical thread of the Adriatic Sea as a metaphor for vaginas, she can. And we'll listen. And maybe praise the fact that learned how to play the bouzouki for it. Sure, we might not like it as much as her album of Native-American chants reinterpreted through her adept kazoo playing, but it's PJ Harvey. PJ Harvey is in the unique position to do whatever the hell she wants. She's a skilled songwriter, lyricist and multi-instrumentalist with nothing left to prove. It's just up to us if that's enough.
6.9 / 10
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