For ten years now, there have been a great many people waiting for PJ Harvey to follow up her breakthrough 2000 LP, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (an album that Harrison Ford bought here at Soundscapes...true story!!) with another release of similar disposition. Good luck.
As anyone who has followed Harvey's career prior to that record (as well as since) can tell you, this gifted, determined artist rarely does the same thing twice. After she dismantled the garage-blues trio format of her first two albums to emerge as the vibrant torch singer of 1995's To Bring You My Love, there was no turning back. Unlike the commercial peaks of so many other musicians, Stories wasn't the desired culmination of years of refining her process—it was just another act in a much larger life-spanning production; one of many costume changes.
With all of that out of the way, however, it's not just a cruel tease to those who loved Stories to say that Let England Shake is the most immediate and poppy album Harvey has done since. It's an honest appraisal of what is a truly excellent LP. The record moves with a briskness and sings with a welcoming appeal that we've not seen from her for years. Few songs linger overly long, but all of them are presented with great openness—something missing on her last few more cryptic releases. The jaunty horns of "The Last Living Rose", the bouncy vibes of the title track, and especially the awesome Niney The Observer-sampling "Written on the Forehead" all sparkle on first listen—yet none compromise in terms of invention or theme, remaining true to the obvious high standards Harvey keeps for herself.
What's perhaps most remarkable here is that this record is so inviting, given its subject matter. Both a post-mortem of England's involvement in world wars past and an examination of its present, the album is unflinching in its focus on the horrors of war, the casualties of imperialism, and the fading of a nation that Harvey loves. Even when discussing these subjects, she sings with the kind of consistently clear and open tones than made her so many new fans on Stories.
The entire record is relaxed and warm—this is especially true when she harmonizes with the accompanying vocals of her male musicians on tracks like "The Words That Maketh Murder", "On Battleship Hill" and the lovely closer, "The Colour of the Earth". It's the kind of group hug/pub shanty moment that would've been unthinkable on either the toothy, greasy Uh Huh Her or the pristine and desolate White Chalk. And so convincing are the performances, I'm sure a few people might wonder what took her so long to come back to this seemingly more agreeable place.
But her long road back here (as much as here is still its own unique place, and by no means an exact return) makes sense. Harvey openly admitted in interviews following Stories that that record was made as a personal challenge and that the end product left her dissatisfied—a feeling consolidated by admissions from respected fellow musicians such as the late Captain Beefheart that they did not enjoy the album much either. It makes sense. As beautiful as it is, Stories felt odd in the PJ catalogue when it arrived and still does today. England, on the other hand, tackles an embraceable (for her) vein of writing in a way that is more in sync with the rest of her catalogue. This is a pop album, yes, but one made on her distinct terms, not as per a traditional rock blueprint.
This wonderful result is almost enough to fool you into thinking that Let England Shake represents a place PJ has always been searching for her whole career, but I doubt it. Rather, it's just where she finds herself today—and as a convenient by-product, we get to hear the best record she's made in many years. Enjoy how it sounds now, folks: there's no telling where she's headed next.