Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Review- "Let England Shake" by Polly Jean Harvey

That's right, I'm reviewing an album. I won't do it often, just when something really strikes me and I feel like sharing my thoughts.

I was extremely excited when I heard about this record. I've been a PJ Harvey fan since I was fourteen and I've followed her closely ever since I got a copy of Uh Huh Her for my birthday. I immediately fell in love and within six months I'd bought nearly all her records.

This is an album I can imagine being a favorite, it's very rare that I like all the tracks on a CD. Her voice is different, her sound is different... I love it.

So... Let England Shake. I'll be going through track-by-track and giving my thoughts about each, rather than just summarizing it.


1. "Let England Shake" - This song uses a sample from "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon as the base for its melody, to surprisingly good results. It's bouncy and folky, but you can feel the darkness creeping in at the edges. It sets the tone perfectly and neither lulls you into false security, nor does it jar your nerves before dropping off.

2. "Last Living Rose" - It starts with a couple of low-end thumps on a guitar before slipping into a jangly, gorgeous melody. The first words are "Goddamn Europeans!", which strikes me as inordinately entertaining; she is British, after all. Short and sweet and full of sunlight, but bitter at the same time.

3. "The Glorious Land" - In the background of the hazy, gray-tinged sound, there's the bright trumpeting of a bugle, the sample interspersed throughout. The song is so evocative of the dank, foggy hills at night, in terms of the sound, and the words are so... sarcastic, almost disgusted. "How is our glorious country plowed? / Not by iron plows / Our land is plowed by tanks and feet / Feet marching".

4. "The Words That Maketh Murder" - One of my favorite tracks. Again, the bouncy, jangly music lies to you in terms of how dark the song is. "I have seen and done things I want to forget / Soldiers fell like lumps of meat". The background vocals are performed by John Parrish (awesome) and Mick Harvey (awesome-er) and the whole thing is just... perfect. The song ends with the vocals repeating, "What if I take my problem to the United Nations? / What if I take my problem to the youth of the nation?", joyous and horrific all at once. Amazing.

5. "All and Everyone" - I had an extreme reaction to this song. It chokes me up every time I hear it (even now, I'm listening to each track) and I'm not really sure why. The chorus until the very end is "As we advance in / In the sun / As we advance in / Every man", when it suddenly switches to "As we advance in / Sing 'Death to them all, every one' ", and tears start burning my eyes at that point. Something about this track makes me hear the ghosts of people who have died in battle and I don't like that. But at the same time, I would call this a standout track because it's so beautiful. I love it when things make me emote, force any kind of feeling out of me.

6. "On Battleship Hill" - This one is another shapeshifter. It starts off with a guitar melody that reminds of an overcast day in the summer, before suddenly becoming stark, just voice and low-end guitar, then moving back. It wouldn't sound out of place on the Bad Seeds' No More Shall We Part, but the theme is very different. "Cruel nature has won again" is repeated throughout, which is a phrase that resonated deeply with me. I just thought it sounded beautiful, and true, really.

7. "England" - Here, Miss Polly is trying her hand at yodeling, to interesting results, "I live and die through England". Probably the most folky of all the songs. She sings of people stagnating "like water or air" and expresses her "Undaunted, never-failing love for you / England / Is all to which I cling". Beautiful.

8. "In the Dark Places" - Not a million miles away from some of Uh Huh Her, but it's got its own energy. It's another song about men going to battle and not coming home, but that's the central theme of the entire album, so, no big deal.

9. "Bitter Branches" - The words here draw indirect comparisons between soldiers' arms and tree branches, which is interesting. It's very short and fades out with the words "Wave goodbye" repeating.

10. "Hanging in the Wire" - It's almost hard to realize that the words (poetically) are describing dead bodies hanging in barbed wire; "Just unburied ghosts / Hanging in the wire". This is where the quieter moments of Uh Huh Her meet White Chalk.

11. "Written on the Forehead" - This has another sample; "Blood and Fire" by Winston "Niney" Holness. This seems like it's more about England's invasion of another country, but I could be wrong. Either way, it's great.

12. "The Colour of Earth" - Another track with Parrish featured heavily. Or Mick Harvey, they sound similar. The words were inspired by a letter written by an actual soldier in the Gallipoli invasion, giving them more weight. It's a very compelling track.


Okay, so there you have it. I hope I interest someone in giving this album a listen. Hell, give ALL her albums a listen.

It's records like this that make me so irritated when people compare Polly Harvey to Patti Smith. No. Just... No. She's a far superior artist- she's evolved more and produced a higher percentage of quality work since 1991 than Smith ever has since 1975. She's also a more appealing person and doesn't put politics into everything. I wouldn't call this a political album because it was largely inspired by wars that happened a long time ago and focuses more on her home country's involvement rather than war at large.

I would also like to say to every hyper-political musician that thinks everyone cares about their opinion: Shut the fuck up. Unless you're M.I.A. and you've actually seen some shit, just keep your mouth shut. I'm looking at YOU Green Day, and YOU, Pearl Jam, and especially YOU, Bono. Get over yourselves.

Anyway... There it is. I strongly recommend this album. Check it out.

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