PJ Harvey followed her ghostly collection of ballads, White Chalk, with Let England Shake, an album strikingly different from what came before it except in its Englishness. White Chalk's haunted piano ballads seemed to emanate from an isolated manse on a moor, but here Harvey chronicles her relationship with her homeland through songs revolving around war. Throughout the album, she subverts the concept of the anthem -- a love song to one's country -- exploring the forces that shape nations and people. This isn't the first time Harvey has been inspired by a place, or even by England: she sang the praises of New York City and her home county of Dorset on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Harvey recorded this album in Dorset, so the setting couldn't be more personal, or more English. Yet she and her longtime collaborators John Parish, Mick Harvey, and Flood travel to the Turkish battleground of Gallipoli for several of Let England Shake's songs, touching on the disastrous World War I naval strike that left more than 30,000 English soldiers dead. Her musical allusions are just as fascinating and pointed: the title track sets seemingly cavalier lyrics like "Let's head out to the fountain of death and splash about" to a xylophone melody borrowed from the Four Lads' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," a mischievous echo of the questions of national identity Harvey explores on the rest of the album (that she debuted the song by performing it on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show for then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown just adds to its mischief). "The Words That Maketh Murder" culminates its grisly playground/battleground chant with a nod to Eddie Cochran's anthem for disenfranchised '50s teens "Summertime Blues," while "Written on the Forehead" samples Niney's "Blood and Fire" to equally sorrowful and joyful effect. As conceptually and contextually bold as Let England Shake is, it features some of Harvey's softest-sounding music. She continues to sing in the upper register that made White Chalk so divisive for her fans, but it's tempered by airy production and eclectic arrangements -- fittingly for an album revolving around war, brass is a major motif -- that sometimes disguise how angry and mournful many of these songs are. "The Last Living Rose" recalls Harvey's Dry-era sound in its simplicity and finds weary beauty even in her homeland's "grey, damp filthiness of ages," but on "England," she wails, "You leave a taste/A bitter one." In its own way, Let England Shake may be even more singular and unsettling than White Chalk was, and its complexities make it one of Harvey's most powerful works.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares