Let England Shake is an album designed to grow on you. Well that’s not quite right. Let England Shake is an album designed to, like that tired old onion metaphor, peel off layer after layer of nuance to you the more times you listen to it. The album’s lyrics in the liner notes are of a Cliff Notes-level abbreviation, entire lines stripped out, leaving just the essential phrases of each song. The sound of Let England Shake completely betrays its lyrical content, and every instrument, from the various frequent collaborator John Parish plays to Harvey’s own voice, have some deeper meaning hidden in them that can be found in multiple listens. It’s as if PJ Harvey purposely leaves out essential information within her presentation of Let England Shake to make it an experience that can only be fully appreciated when observed on several levels.
The first strange thing that is made apparent while listening to Let England Shake is the intrusion of discordant melodies within the seemingly beautiful pallet Harvey lays out for the listener. Someone might mistakenly hum out of place on the title track’s xylophone melody, as it is played in a 7/4 time signature (like Pink Floyd’s “Money”). Others will think they left YouTube open when the trumpet march comes in out of nowhere on “The Glorious Land” or when Harvey duets with a sample of a throat singer in the acoustic “England”. It’s the first layer of the proverbial onion, hinting at a din that lies just underneath the shakers and light guitars.
A simple second look into Let England Shake reveals that the album’s lyrical content is tenaciously gruesome. “The Glorious Land”’s last thirty seconds consist of a call-and-response chant whose call is Harvey imploring, “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” and whose response is a little hard to hear. It turns out that response is “The fruit is deformed children”, creating an image that could make even the most imagination-deprived shudder for a second. At first, Harvey’s quoting of “Summertime Blues”’s “What if I take my problem to the United Nations” sounds playful, but, with closer inspection, is representative of a caustic realism for the effectiveness of worldwide peacekeeping instead of the naïve innocence invoked in the original song. And this layer is by no means revealed all at once. Much has been written about the “Soldiers fall like lumps of meat” line in “The Words That Maketh Murder”, but I never actually heard that line until I listened to the album a sixth or seventh time. Let England Shake is literally opening up new nuggets of depth to me as I write this review, and no doubt it will continue to for quite some time.
Even the themes of Let England Shake are not as they seem. Anyone who has read the track list or just read the title has an excellent idea of what the album’s subject is. However, although the titular country is name-checked countless times, Harvey’s lyrics seem more concerned with tackling the topic of armed conflict, and not necessarily that of England. Harvey has cited the violence in Gallipoli, Iraq and Afghanistan as reference points, but Let England Shake’s lyrics mostly describe vast, universal landscapes of carnage, either expressing her beliefs on war as a third party or by putting herself in the boots of a soldier as on the aforementioned “The Words That Maketh Murder”. The end of “In the Dark Places” builds a wave of emotion around the repetition of the phrase “Our young man / Hit with guns / In the dust / And in the dark places”, and, as it crests, you can’t help but feel something intense, whether it be patriotism, disgust or outrage, and, at that and many points in Let England Shake, geographical context becomes meaningless.
Harvey’s characterization of England is similarly deceptive. The beginning lines of “Last Living Rose” are easy to make out. “Goddamn Europeans / Take me back to beautiful England”, she sings sweetly. One would not be faulted if they interpreted that as her mission statement and stopped paying attention there, but, alas, Harvey has much more to say. “And the great and filthiness of ages and battered books / And fog rolling down behind the mountains / On the graveyards and Dixie captains / Let me walk through the stinking alleys”, she sings and goes on throughout the song in a light rant that’s the lyrical high point of the album. You see, as much as Harvey iterates that she is nothing without England, she inveighs it constantly on Let England Shake, calling its glorious fruit deformed children and so forth.
Ultimately, Harvey depicts England in much the same way Arcade Fire depicted the suburbs in their album of the same name; impartial and unrelenting, but with an often conflicting romanticism that we all have to some extent for our hometown for the simple fact that it was where we came from, no matter how much we hated that place. Harvey may live and die through England, as she says on Let England Shake, but her tales of ambivalence and violence towards the land for which she is so faithful are more transcendent than you, I or PJ Harvey could ever fathom.