Like politics itself, political albums are too often preachy and shrill. In some ways, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake—an avowedly anti-war record—falls prey to the same pitfalls. But Shake’s transcendence lies in Harvey’s acceptance of the limitations of the political album, and the way she recombines protest-music traditions while rejoicing in them—not to mention the fact that the disc houses some of her surest, most haunted tunes in years.
The jaunty xylophone opening of the title track kicks into a ghostly verse, where Harvey icily wails “The West’s asleep / Let England shake / weighted down with silent dead.” The cast of corpses doesn’t let up. On “The Glorious Land,” she jeers, “And what is the glorious fruit of our land? / Its fruit is deformed children.” But Harvey builds her case on more than bodies; throughout the disc, war and its corollaries—decadence, decay, the slow draining of the dregs of empire—are reflected in the crops and cupboards of those either left behind or left in its path.
As visceral as the lyrics are, Shake sounds more layered than loud. Rather than unleashing the hellfire of her early work, Harvey hones rawness and righteousness into subtle weapons; previous collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey return to dress her skeletons with whispery guitar, brushed drums, and droning vocals. Samples and loops—including Niney The Observer’s roots-reggae anthem “Blood & Fire,” which adds an incantatory undertow to Shake’s tale of peak-oil apocalypse, “Written On The Forehead”—offset the folky, sometimes murky arrangements. The muted atmosphere shouldn’t fool anyone, though; Shake is an album so roiling with poetic indignation, all it can reasonably do is steam.