It's been more than ten years since PJ Harvey has made an accessible album. To put some context behind that, the Strokes have weathered their entire music career since PJ Harvey released an album even flirted with radio playability (see 2000's Stories From The City Stories From The Sea). In the last decade, her most high-profile output was the jarring, punkish Uh Huh Her and the uncomfortably sparse (and aptly titled) White Chalk.
Let England Shake is the first album of Harvey's since Stories From The City Stories From The Sea where the listener will be tempted to give it a second listen shortly after the first. Though she moved to New York in the late '90s, Let England Shake is keenly focused on the UK. On "The Glorious Land," the chorus repeatedly coos "Oh, England!" as a battle-charging bugle plays. On "The Last Living Rose," Harvey yearns to return to "the grey damn filthiness of ages."
Let England Shake reunites Harvey with frequent collaborator John Parish and producer Flood (U2). Harvey took almost a year to write Let England Shake, and the extra time she took to write the album pays off in huge dividends. There is a unifying feel of war-torn loss throughout the album. Many of the songs, such as "The Words That Maketh Murder" and the beautiful closer "The Colour Of The Earth" have such a traditional hymnal element to them that it sounds like they could have been sung on the battle lines in World War I.
Music-wise, Let England Shake is a slow-burner. The popping keyboards of the opening title track don't lend it to be that powerful of an opening. The backing vocals on "The Words That Maketh Murder" are saddled with a flat, slightly clichéd chorus of "Why don't I take my problems to the United Nations." But make it "On Battleship Hill" and the second half of the album is as good as any side A or side B of any PJ Harvey album before. Even better, the latter tracks pull the listener in for a second listen, which will only benefit the album's slightly "off" first half.
Artists have made albums that reflected their countries before (the most obvious being Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.), but few have had the ambition to combine themes of country, war, and a general "where we stand as a people today" into such a cohesive album, and still sound as modest and low key as Let England Shake. While the album definitely contains some of the more accessible elements of Is This Desire? and Stories From The City Stories From The Street, it's also an album unlike anything in Harvey's collection.