Let England Shake (Island)
It seems like there is a different point of departure for just about every former PJ Harvey fan. Her last three albums—the slick Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, the relatively humdrum Uh Huh Her, and the ghostly White Chalk—have all dropped by the wayside listeners who preferred the raw blues reinventions she deployed on Dry, Rid of Me, and To Bring You My Love. Let England Shake isn’t even close to a return to the caustic guitar rock ferocity of Harvey’s early 1990s work—she plays zither and autoharp as much as guitar here, and she sings much of the album in the same high-pitched register she first used on White Chalk—but more than anything she’s recorded in the last decade, the new disc echoes the primal majesty of her first three albums.
This is a dense, dizzying, and smart collage of art-pop, folk-rock, and samples (of Arabic music, martial horns, and the reggae anthem “Blood and Fire”). The album is full of references to both pop culture and British history. Unlike other contemporary indie-folk acts, though, Harvey resists sentiment and nostalgia; her backward glance at World War I and English identity seems like a frame for more current considerations about war and England’s role in post-modern Europe. But it would be narrow to describe this as just a political album. It’s as striking and vivid as anything she’s ever recorded, beautiful and poetic as well as intelligent, and its elaborate maze of references, sounds, and imagery promises a long time of rewarding listening.