It appears to the be the year for English pop artists to engage in political critique -- well, sort of. Who knew musicians could still find their arsenal by tarrying with the pastoral tradition?
PJ Harvey's Let England Shake isn't terribly complex ("How is our glorious country sown? Not with wheat and corn" -- "Our land is plowed by tanks!" Harvey sings on "The Glorious Land"), but musically there's a lot going on. Harvey's familiar songwriting style is stronger than ever (best heard in songs like "Bitter Branches" and "In the Dark Places"), but it seems she's taken the lessons of failed albums like White Chalk and her recent collaboration with John Parish (A Woman a Man Walked By) to heart: here, murky production, disparate soundscapes, and a Victorian-gothic aesthetic merge with reflections on post-colonial England: a nation constantly in dialogue with its own legacy (as she demonstrates on the haunting centerpiece, "England"). Harvey's approach is to play with, juxtapose, subvert cultural resting places with a downright bloody history: into this mix she throws lines from English protest songs, reggae samples, and tons of autoharp. In other words, Harvey's task with Let England Shake is to re-energize the English tradition of political critique. It could have been a heavy-handed train-wreck, but in Harvey's hands (and thanks incredible team she's assembled: Rob Ellis, Mick Harvey, John Parish, Flood, etc.), Let England Shake reminds PJ Harvey fans why we came to love her in the first place: not for her brilliant insights, but for the raw emotion that can only come by looking the devil in the face.