It took about 10 listens until I was ready to love PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album, Let England Shake.
At first, the record seemed excessively peculiar, verging on irritating. Harvey’s voice swings like a pendulum, nearly childlike at times, then soars up into high-pitched, controlled wails. Coupled with off-kilter rhythms, this was off-putting. The album was like an aching tooth—but I couldn’t stop returning to poke at it, listening to one song, and then another, rarely making it through the entirety, not yet grasping that I was peering into the belly of a masterpiece.
But like a many-storied old structure, it’s all about finding a way to crawl through a cracked window, to enter into the glorious, cob-webbed histories held in its deeps. Let England Shake offers rewards for persistence; though it’s tempting to walk away, doing so eliminates the chance of basking in the glimmering moments, the autoharps and the saxophones, the rousing, folk-inspired chants that get the blood pumping. All of this is present, along with poetic tales of war and terror; an unflinching exploration of war, nationalism, death and transition; and the staring into the abyss that comes with living in a complicated, violent, frenzied, swollen world.
“The West’s asleep, let England shake, weighted down with silent dead,” sings Harvey, on the album’s title track—and with that, the lyrical floodgates open, allowing a flood of chilling images. On “The Words that Maketh Murder,” Harvey sings of soldiers falling like lumps of meat, of quivering flesh and flies swarming “everyone,” all told from the perspective of a returning soldier plagued by images of death and destruction. “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget,” he says, ending with a repeated refrain taken verbatim from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
The day after she won her second Mercury Prize, for Let England Shake, this past November, Harvey told the Guardian that the album’s origins, in part, arose from her own sense of impotence in the face of horrific events that happen across the world on a daily basis. If the role of the artist is to absorb human nature in its darkest form and regenerate the soils of life into something altogether new, illuminating, emotional and quite possibly beautiful, than Harvey has flown above and beyond the call of duty. She’s produced a work of art to stand the test of time, reminding the listener of our particular place in history and our responsibility to bear witness, and not to forget.