Sound: Known for her constant reinvention, PJ Harvey's album releases always promise controversy and often praise from many sides. Shockingly, even though she constantly changes her musical styles and sound, she is still able to maintain a noble fan base. This makes her in a very select league of female singer/songwriters such as Tori Amos and Kate Bush who have lasted several decades. Yet, Polly Jean's sex makes no difference to her crafting brilliant albums, one right after the other. "Let England Shake", released Valentine's Day of 2011 is her latest solo album since White Chalk (she did a massive collaborative project with John Parish in 2009).
PJ Harvey's sound can never be nailed down because she grows consistently with each subsequent album. For example, "White Chalk" presented her softer, higher range ala Kate Bush. She continues this trend in "Let England Shake" but adds on layers of saxophone, an instrument she learned for the album. She learned piano for "White Chalk" and these instruments help her craft new, different songs from previous albums. Being that "Let England Shake" is a war album and the saxophone was designed for military bands, PJ Harvey is always thinking, always has a unifying sound in her albums.
An interesting way to look at Harvey's work is to listen to her previous album to see where her new sound is coming from. On surface view, "Let England Shake" is a much more vocal, narrative album than the introspective and dark "White Chalk". Yet, "Let England Shake" continues her dark lyrical imagery and adds on a classical sound. War-time themes played on trumpets provide an odd contrast to the rocking songs such as "The Words That Maketh Murder". The brass almost gives the songs a sloppiness similar to Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea". And similar to that album, PJ Harvey has a magnificent sound tied together with vague lyrics around an overall theme. // 9
Lyrics: The theme on the album is simple: war. Yet, the specifics that Harvey wants to convey comes across as vague, yet still powerful. Classical imagery of England is prominent on more than one song such as "The Last Living Rose". That song has a wistful feeling to it, similar to Kate Bush's "Oh England, My Lionheart". Yet unlike Bush, Harvey is even less direct on what she is singing about. For example, acting like a narrator throughout the entire album, Harvey sings:
Take me back to beautiful England
& the grey, damp filthiness of ages, and battered books,
fog rolling down behind the mountains,
& on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains"
She almost has a sarcastic tone through the album, while still longing for her home land, England. It almost makes this album the most self-aware of all her work, though she never gets too personal. The final song, "The Colour of the Earth" is specific about the death of a soldier (think "Army Dreamers" by Bush), but Harvey acts more like a narrator than a particular person attached to the character, Louis. She calls him her dearest friend, and she could perhaps be a lover of some sorts.
For the album, Harvey wanted to adopt a more narrative tone in her singing to convey the album's various war-time stories. This works well because the stories don't become too corny about Harvey lamenting death over and over. Instead, she comments on the factors that death brings about such as loneliness and how war leaves its mark on a landscape of both land and the mind. // 10
Overall Impression: Harvey has reinvented herself again to critical acclaim and commercial success. The album peaked within the Top 10 in the UK and just outside the Top 30 in the US. While the album didn't chart a successful single like her albums "To Bring You My Love" and "Uh Huh Her", people are still willing to take a chance on this outstandingly flexible artist. The unifying theme gives the album a special meaning and Harvey's delivery has never been better. // 9