Whether it’s over years or a matter of mere days, certain pieces of music become more powerful as the World continues to turn. Occasionally, an album will somehow feel timeless upon impact. Released in 2011, at a time where the Afghan War was at its most critical, Let England Shake was a striking open letter to the leaders of the Western World — the UK in particular. Prior to this, PJ Harvey was generally known for murky blues music that revelled in darkness, but with the release of 2011’s White Chalk — an introspective chamber pop album — it was clear that she was angling for a different approach. Whilst I think PJ Harvey’s prime years were in the early-to-mid ’90s, Let England Shake stands tall and proud as her modern masterpiece.
At this point in her career, it could be argued that PJ Harvey was close to becoming a veteran. On Let England Shake, she sings with such spirit and passion, it’s as if she’s addressing the nation. She purposefully allows her accent to come through, presumably for that English authenticity. “This Glorious Land” even features a delightful horn section, playing out like a call to arms, as if to represent nobility. It’s still, to this day, a deeply inspiring listen.
The record also features some of PJ Harvey’s most striking lyrical content to date. As “The Words that Maketh Murder” begins to take its stride, with a stylish swagger, she sings the following: ‘I’ve seen and done things I want to forget/I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees.’ That’s some way to set the scene. Moments later, she delivers the most striking battle cry: ‘death to all and everyone.’ For a record that sounds so lush, it’s remarkably visceral.
Let England Shake is a stirring record, then, but it doesn’t settle for being provocative and stimulating. It has brilliant tunes, with plenty of magical vocal hooks and rousing rhythm sections. Long-time collaborator Flood is on call for mixing and production duties, and it’s one of his finest works to date. Let England Shake sounds impeccable on all fronts. It is, quite simply, one of the greatest anti-war albums of all time. In this current political climate, its significance has only ascended.9 10
Favourite tracks // This Glorious Land
The Words that Maketh Murder
Let England Shake
It’s hard to take seriously claims that the album is dead when projects like Let England Shake exist. PJ Harvey put in all the stops to make something as solemn as it is defiant. Although I will probably always be more partial to the guttural grinds of her ‘90s output, Let England Shake really does feel like a statement. Every element — the production, the arrangements, the lyrics, the vocals — pulls in the same direction, and the results are haunting.
Harvey is obviously the lynchpin. She casts her spell immediately in the opening track, her sing-song lyrics seeping out of the mix like a Siren in the mist. That eerie childishness underpins a lot of what goes on. I suppose it helps make talk of war crimes and xenophobia and propaganda that much more depressing. The album’s quite reminiscent of Arthur by the Kinks in that sense, with jangly guitars, swelling horns, and featherlight melodies juxtaposed against visions of poor bastards being blown apart in fields. Defeated British irony at its best.
All this said, I’m never quite overwhelmed by Let England Shake. It’s close to sublime, but not quite. It’s a foggy, drizzly English dream with a handful of vivid moments. A dirge has never sounded so funky as “The Last Living Rose” does, while “All and Everyone” is sodden and beautiful in ways I think only PJ Harvey could manage. She’s a force of nature, and in Let England Shake she produced one of the 2010s’ finest records.8 10
Favourite tracks // The Last Living Rose
In the Dark Places
All and Everyone
Creating music that breezes along, bright and airy, while delivering imagery of dark, sombre themes takes skill. Lean into the bright instrumental, and the lyrical content is overshadowed. Focus too much on the message and that atmospheric backing is an afterthought. Despite this, Let England Shake is drenched in a dichotomy of sweet folk music and grim scenes of war.
Throughout PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album, you could be forgiven for thinking she’d produced a beautiful yet slightly tame entry for her discography. But it’s her lyrical content, featuring visceral depictions of war and human carnage, that shines here. “All and Everyone” and “The Colour Of The Earth” make for prime examples, describing bloodied beaches and the grave extent of death. Juxtaposed to this is the imagery of the world around these scenes, ‘thyme carried on the wind’ and ‘the white cliffs of Dover’ both build eerie settings for the horrors that unfold.
Some of the instrumentals here will certainly have you returning for more too, and the understated horns on the likes of “Last Living Rose” and “The Words that Maketh Murder” are a beautiful flourish that only have me wishing for more.
It’s poignant and potent, and it’ll no doubt have you thinking a little more deeply about it by the time it gets to its (rather unexpected) end. While I do feel as though I’m missing something having not fallen head over heels for it, I can certainly appreciate Let England Shake as a strong album that’s well worth a listen.7 10
Favourite tracks // England
The Words that Maketh Murder
Written on the Forehead