Pop & Rock 2011: 30 Best Albums

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Pop & Rock 2011: 30 Best Albums
8. PJ Harvey Let England Shake (Island)
In cock-rockier hands, using the Great War to consider its contemporary counterparts and examine a bemused homeland could result in a ham-fisted concept album (see: the 1970s). Instead, PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake fuses heady themes and dynamic compositions to create an elegant, erudite, and wholly thrilling artistic achievement. With economical, evocative lyrics, Harvey miraculously manages subtlety on an album populated with dying boys calling for their mothers ("The Colour of the Earth"), "gunners waiting in corpses," ("All and Everyone"), and soldiers falling "like lumps of meat" ("The Words that Maketh Murder"). Taking more inspiration from TS Eliot than Robert Graves ― though indebted to both ― her poetic scope continues to broaden. Correspondingly, this is as musically opaque as the songwriter has ever been. Recorded in a church, the sound is airy when it needs to be and, at turns, grating and appropriately lofty. Throughout, the pristine production judiciously anchors experimentation and brings together flights of fancy. Wisely using distorted guitars ("In the Dark Places"), unsettling orchestration ("England"), and a dash of reggae ("Written on the Forehead"), Harvey ingeniously augments and elevates thematic concerns. Conversely, "The Glorious Land" ― with its can't-resist bugle ― and the blood-soaked, piano-driven "Hanging in the Wire" are more obvious but no less effective. Filtering an examination of her home through World War I battlefields, Let England Shake may not be as overtly personal as some of Harvey's past work, but it's no less intimate (see "England). Bonus: it's way catchier than All Quiet on the Western Front.
Scott Tavener

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