Like few other artists – Björk an obvious touchstone, given their respective radicalisms – PJ Harvey has a refreshingly varied history.
Her sweeping shifts of style, adhering to a policy of “if it worked before, fuck it – no need to do it again” have seen Harvey meander from her early post-Beefheart blues through periods of radio friendly rock and, most recently, wailing balladry. The sense of exploration on her albums never fails to give the impression that for the aspiring artist, anything is possible, and that adventurous blueprint (if no other) survives on her eighth studio album.
Let England Shake ruminates on Harvey’s emotional response to her homeland, often dwelling on its conflict ridden, imperialist past (especially the Gallipoli campaign of World War I). Despite its overt negativity about war, not to mention the title track’s infamous premiere on The Andrew Marr Show to an audience of then PM Gordon Brown, the album is of too deep and personal a vision to be seen as purely political – Billy Bragg it isn’t.
The former first lady of guitar music is more notable for her liberal use of autoharp this time around, and with reverb in the right places and a vocal style edging towards the higher ranges, much of the record seems to travel down the headphone cables from somewhere in the hazy distance. If that aesthetic hints at the lack of clarity on the battlefield, the out-of-time trumpet fanfares on ‘This Glorious Land’ are more explicit; utterly ironic, they juxtapose with unpleasant, choice imagery (“What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children”).
Although it never aims to reproduce the brazen pomp of the military fanfare, Let England Shake’s songwriting is accessible enough to explain the unanimity of its current critical acclaim. But it’s the combination of this immediacy with the sheer breadth of PJ Harvey’s creativity that justifies the reviews.