Anthony goes inside PJ Harvey’s navel for his deep-dive of her 2011 album in my Saturday guest blog series.
PJ Harvey will be one of the most important artists to record music between the 1990’s and whenever she decides she’s had enough. Her catalogue of albums began with dark wave tinged sets of bluesy rock which were equally noisy and melodic. She’s the only artist ever to have won England’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize twice. Her international acclaim was assured with the 1995 album To Bring You My Love. She has collaborated steadily with English musician John Parish, and former Birthday Party and Bad Seed Mick Harvey (no relation). She has nine official album releases to date and not a dud in the mix. The one I’d like to discuss is her eighth album from 2011, Let England Shake.
This record is a historical and cultural essay on England through the lens of war. It hits on recent conflicts in Afghanistan and spends extended time on the World War I disaster in Gallipoli. Her previous work is notable for personal lyrics and stories. She serves as a combination of historian and narrator here. She sings in an almost childlike upper register discovered on the preceding album, White Chalk. While that technique served a stylistic purpose on that album’s piano-based ballads, it soars to a level of genius on Let England Shake as she recounts England’s wartime history. The opening line of the album, “The West’s asleep” feels particularly poignant right now, and the record balances academic lyrics with fully accessible arrangements.
It seems natural to be drawn to music that offers an inward look to the artist. How much fun is it to decode Bob Dylan’s poetry and lyrics? Nick Cave and PJ Harvey had a relationship and upon their breakup, he wrote songs about her. Her music has offered that inward view across her career. She has excelled at her external view and opinion even more deeply, and that is really on display here.
I would normally pick out notable songs to discuss, but this is an album lover’s album. The songs don’t mean what they say, or say what they mean alone. Like most great things, it asks something from you—in this case, around 45 minutes of your attention.
I think we as music fans have a natural tendency to decide that an artist’s best work is either their very early releases, or the one that we connected with first. This often stands in contrast with the artist’s perception of themselves and their work.
If you listen to or read interviews, they will almost universally say, or hope that their most recent work is their best. Early work generally tends to have an edge and lack of reluctance for musicians. She never really lost that edge, but brings it fully forward on Let England Shake, but through the lens of a person in their 40’s rather than their 20’s. She still retains the adventurousness one finds on all her work, which when tied together delivers a work of art fully realized.