PJ Harvey is hardly an innocent. She seems to make a career out of making music that sounds like it has been to hell and back, and she seems to enjoy preferring hell. I never dug her early work. It had a nice, intense quality to it that was pretty unmatched by any of her contemporaries, but just too voyeuristic. Giving us all a keyhole into her issues provided moments of fleeting terror for her listeners, but just not sustainable. By the time we figured out what she was raging against (usually herself, for doing dumb shit she knows better than to do), she was onto the next freak out. The keyhole wasn’t exactly blurred, but the furniture she hurled against the door seemed to always obstruct what exactly we were looking at. At some point we just began to trust the noise coming from the room. And you know what, that was more interesting anyways. Maybe I sound like a dick, but I don’t know why anyone would care about a full album of songs detailing her breakup with Steve Albini.
Having said all that, Let England Shake is…well, it’s better than all that. Maybe not better, because there is something to be said for a talented songwriter just screaming at the sky and waiting for something to fall down on her. But certainly more interesting. Gone is the sense of wild irresponsibility that inspired (or, polluted, depending on how much you like her earlier works) the seminal albums that made her a top flight name. What we have left is still the trademark seriousness – that’s not going anywhere. But it’s a restrained, focused effort, spread outward.
I know her early seminal albums were great in their own way, and certainly cathartic. But Let England Shake takes that same primal anger we all latched onto, and made it more applicable, relevant in today’s times. It’s not MY fault I haven’t dealt with the horrific pain that can accompany a relationship biting the dust, but I shouldn’t have to fragment her pissed off lyrics to find something I can relate to. Let England Shake is a little political, I mean she’s pissed off at the UK. But it’s a vague anger. It’s not irrelevant but really gives us a chance to plant our flag behind her. Musically, this is a dirge. It has horns and PJ singing death anthems over some militant structures. But at the end of the day, she’s still pissed off. Just, in a good way. It’s not amazing to see her broaden her sound and fury – but it just feels like a giant, awesome step, one I frankly didn’t expect to see. This is also just a guess, but I would have a hard time believing Mick Harvey from Bad Seeds wasn’t a major contributor here. His stamp is all over this, from the patient frustration blooming into anxiety, to just letting everything rush outward.
Lou Reed once sang “Watch out/the world’s behind you” on ‘Sunday Morning. PJ is saying “Fuck you/I’m your world”. She’s looking outward this time, but we always end up looking back at this girl. I think she likes it that way, and so do we.