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PJ Harvey’s deserving Mercury triumph

PJ Harvey has garnered an extraordinary amount of press attention and critical acclaim for her eighth LP, Let England Shake – most recently she has been awarded the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for a second time. Such has been the scale of Harvey’s achievement that the widespread coverage is bound to attract some new curious fans to the fold. So what makes Let England Shake so good, and is it representative of Harvey’s work as a whole?

The answer to the latter question is both yes and no. Each new LP Harvey delivers is different in some way, a progression from the work before – in other words, taking what she’s learned from one project and refashioning it into something new on the next. The raw, lo-fi blues rock of her 1992 debut Dry was succeeded by 1993’s even more raw, blistering punk-blues Rid of Me. Two years later, Harvey heightened the blues elements but in a much more sonically sophisticated, diverse framework on 1995’s To Bring You My Love before taking the hint of burbling electronics and uneasy effects to a new level on 1998’s Is This Desire?.

Keen to move away from such a dark sound, Harvey moved into a more straightforward rock territory on the Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), which shared the power of her earlier records but married them to more refined melodies. Faced with how to follow such a commercial and critical high, Harvey deconstructed and turned in a self-produced, largely self-played “scrapbook” type of record on the scratchy lo-fi rock of Uh Huh Her (2004), which also introduced a more folk-inspired element to her work.

As strong as it may have been, Uh Huh Her signalled something of a creative dead-end for Harvey; her next move was inspired. Abandoning her trusty guitar, she composed on piano for the first time – some 15 years into her career – and the result was the spectral, spooky White Chalk, her most intimate record. Ever since, Harvey has been riding a creative wave and seems to be in the midst of a real purple patch. Her recent collaboration album with John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By, brought back a scratchy blues-folk quality and Let England Shake seems to take some cues from there.

The biggest change is in the lyrical style; before, Harvey often used intriguing imagery, often visceral and sometimes Biblical, but since White Chalk there has definitely been a sense of the words having paramount importance. This is lyrically one of her strongest albums, cohesive and full of imagery of war and conflict. Rather than being a straightforward political album, Harvey imagines herself as a “war song correspondent,” delivering news from the front lines. Thus, there’s no political bias, more observations of war’s effects on humankind in general. Harvey has said that she read widely, from the poetry of Harold Pinter and TS Eliot to contemporary eyewitness accounts from people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while the lyrics rarely go into specifics, there’s definitely the sense that Harvey has done her research and approaches such thorny topics with confidence and without a preachy tone.

The main reason the evocative lyrics have such resonance is in the way Harvey marries them to some of her most upbeat melodies and shimmering production. Largely eschewing the piano of White Chalk in favour of walls of guitars and, significantly, the autoharp, the instrumentation gives the album a unique, vaguely folk-tinged feel that feels both timeless and extremely fresh all at once. The music is full of vitality and energy and movement, and Harvey is backed by a sterling band that includes long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey on a variety of instruments and drummer Jean-Marc Butty, recording the album together over a five-week period in a Dorset church in the spring of 2010. The percussion is one of the most impressive parts of the album; it’s very rarely straightforward drum beats – Butty is incredibly inventive in how he provides the underpinning for these songs, which often feel very light and floaty thanks to the effects on the guitars (in prior work, Harvey’s guitar playing has mostly been very raw, very bluesy, very powerful; here it’s almost weightless, reminiscent of Cocteau Twins, and it’s a unique new flavour.)

Vocally too, she’s developing new phrasing techniques. The characterless voice she employed on White Chalk, pitched higher, is retained but has a much throatier quality; it’s still recognisably PJ Harvey singing, but a fresh new approach (and listen to the piercingly high soprano notes she reaches on “On Battleship Hill.”) Melodically, many songs have a very simple, sing-song quality that communicates the lyrics effectively and, especially when Harvey is singing some quite horrific lyrics, only adds to the impact. Thus, the devastating “Hanging in the Wire” is musically one of the softest and most beautiful songs in her catalogue, while “Let England Shake” has an almost jangly, hypnotic, skeletal Tom Waits-style autoharp/xylophone arrangement. “England” features a Kurdish folk song sample but the exoticism is in the melody alone, for the song is largely delivered solo on acoustic guitar, while “Written on the Forehead” is the album’s most shimmering number and features a surprising but wonderfully effective reggae sample.

Other highlights include the galloping urgency of “The Glorious Land,” which features dissonant bugle calls, the haunting, solemn “All and Everyone,” which features an inspired dirge-like coda that features some mournful saxophone, and the fast-rocking “Bitter Branches.” Lead single “The Words That Maketh Murder” features one of the album’s catchiest melodies and autoharp parts, also making use of handclaps and male vocals, while the immediately accessible “The Last Living Rose” ranks among Harvey’s most beautiful, simple songs. “The Colour of the Earth” ends the album on a communal, sing-song, anthemic tone.

Let England Shake is a landmark work. It’s not far and away Harvey’s best; she’s incredibly consistent and each of her records brings something exciting to the table, but Let England Shake has a cohesion and assurance – and originality – that really marks it out as something special. On first listen, some of the more unusual songs (such as “England” and the dissonant bugle calls in “The Glorious Land”) may be slightly off-putting, but repeated listening reveals this to be one of Harvey’s strongest and most unusual but beautiful albums. It slots nicely within her catalogue yet simultaneously feels like a real bold new step, and it is exciting to ponder quite where she will go next.

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