Album review: P.J. Harvey's "Let England Shake"

Monday, February 14, 2011; 11:29 PM

P.J. Harvey's formidable new disc is a war album, but not the war you might think. "Let England Shake" uses World War I, specifically the 1915 battle of Gallipoli, as a metaphor for armed conflict in general, and armed conflict in general as a flashpoint for the decline of England.

It's hard, heavy, woeful stuff, and while "England" is Harvey's grimmest album ever - which is saying something - it's also bloody cheerful: It's the gayest, grisliest, most hauntingly lovely record you'll hear all year.

Compared with Harvey's last release, the raw, watchful "White Chalk," it's positively jubilant. "The West's asleep/Let England shake," Harvey sings on the rollicking sea shanty of a title track. "Weighted down with silent dead/I fear our blood won't rise again."

Harvey recently traded her elderly bluesman growl for a baby-doll falsetto, and the juxtaposition between her newly girly voice and the disc's preoccupation with death and decay ("Soldiers fell like lumps of meat/. . . Arms and legs were in the trees," she chirps on "The Words That Maketh Murder") might have been the stuff horror movies are made of.

But "England" retains little of the eerie, sketchpad minimalism of "White Chalk." These are warmblooded, frequently up-tempo, bluesy alt-rock tracks propelled by curious devices: an omnipresent Autoharp; a sampling of Niney the Observer's reggae obscurity "Blood and Fire" (on "Written on the Forehead"). "The Glorious Land" features bugles calling the charge to war, and it's dark and visceral and goose-bump-raising - but not menacing, just sad.

- Allison Stewart

Recommended tracks: "The Words That Maketh Murder," "Written on the Forehead"

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