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Old 03-02-2011, 01:11 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

I alluded to PJ Harvey's new album in my Radiohead thread, so here's my review.

If PJ Harvey's great-grandmother had written a musical about the Battle of Gallipoli ...

4/5 stars

Let England Shake is PJ Harvey's public-music follow-up to the private trauma of White Chalk. If WC was about a vaguely Victorian, weirdly gothic woman tapping out tales of woe in her parlor, LES is a music hall celebration from the same make-believe era. Antique instrumentation, a monomaniacal focus on the horrors of old-fashioned war (no nuclear devastation here; soldiers get shot and killed one by one), and a sentimental fixation on "England" (rather than the United Kingdom, or even Britain) combine to create an anachronistic and carnivalesque atmosphere. Sit back and enjoy the jolly good stage show!

After many listenings, my reaction to LES is that I like it more than I perhaps feel I should. I admire Harvey's chameleonlike transformations, but there is no question that in forsaking rock for synthetic period music, PJ is abandoning what she does best. Yes, WC was good, and LES is good, but albums like Rid of Me and Stories were spectacular. PJ Harvey is the greatest female rocker ever. She is not the greatest autoharp balladeer ever, although she is surprisingly good at it. Harvey's vocals on LES also represent a compromise. She's always had "special effects" vocals available on demand -- a wild falsetto or guttural growl -- but on WC and now LES, the special effects vocals have become the entire show. I miss her powerful, attractive singing in her normal range. The highly mannered warbling she offers (mostly) on LES is just not as pleasant to the ear, and it also tends to pull her off pitch more frequently.

But despite what I perceive as its weaknesses, LES charms. "The Words That Maketh Murder" is just insidiously catchy. "The Colour of the Earth" is quite moving, and "The Glorious Land' and "Bitter Branches" come close to a successful hybridization of the old, rocking PJ with the new music hall Harvey. The songs collectively give the impression of possessing interesting, unexpected depths, making for rewarding repeat listening. Let England Shake is one odd album, but for me it's become a necessary one.
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