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“Experimental” is a ten-cent word that lazy journalists toss around in reviews to fill space. It takes a true artist to merit a fine complimentary adjective like that, but PJ Harvey truly warrants it on Let England Shake, her eighth studio album.
Too few albums seem unified through and through, but Harvey really tries to perform the title act through 12 songs, each tackling another component of the motherland’s complex past and modern history. “Let England Shake” begins things in a spooky whirl of musicality, with Harvey singing “England’s dancing days are done” over a subtle collection of percussion, brass and even a xylophone.
The music conforms to standard singer-songwriter fare, but it’s the expansion of what’s already there that makes Harvey an experimentalist.
“The Glorious Land” builds around thick percussion layers that sound like someone shaking a large sack of pennies. A sad trumpet pipes over the rising sound, peppy when it shouldn’t be, like a dog jumping around in the car driving him to be put down. “England” plays like a requiem to the titular nation, with Harvey’s near-yodel filling the empty spaces between acoustic guitar strums.
“Bitter Branches” tells of pointy war, with the title objects being the arms of soldiers spreading into the world. This rich metaphor makes for a gripping two-and-a-half-minute tune that passes quickly like oncoming fire. Album closer “The Colour of the Earth” features PJ and her frequent collaborator Mark Harvey crooning about a fallen friend over chiming U2-like guitars and a thunderous kick drum pounding intermittently, like a soldier’s stomp.
Despite the grim images of twisted trees, war-painted scenes and dark places, Harvey ends the album triumphantly, as if the Union Jack were cinematically waving above. Using autoharp, mellotron, trombone, trumpet, xylophone, saxophone, organ, piano and violin on top of her traditional lineup of drums and guitar, Harvey’s experiment becomes sentiment on an album all her own.
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