“Take me back to England
& the grey, damp filthiness of ages
fog rolling down behind the mountains
& on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains.”
PJ Harvey, The Last Living Rose
PJ Harvey’s new album was recorded in a 19th Century church in Dorset, on a cliff-top overlooking the sea. It was created with a cast of musicians including such long-standing allies as Flood, John Parish, and Mick Harvey. It is the eighth PJ Harvey album, following 2007’s acclaimed ‘White Chalk’, and the Harvey/Parish collaboration ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’.
Such are the bare facts. But what is remarkable about ‘Let England Shake’ is bound up with its music, its abiding atmosphere – and in particular, its words. If Harvey’s past work might seem to draw on direct emotional experience, this new album is rather different. Its songs centre on both her home country, and events further afield in which it has embroiled itself. The lyrics return, time and again, to the matter of war, the fate of the people who must do the fighting, and events separated by whole ages, from Afghanistan to Gallipoli. The album they make up is not a work of protest, nor of strait-laced social or political comment. It brims with the mystery and magnetism in which she excels. But her lyric-writing in particular has arrived at a new, breathtaking place, in which the human aspects of history are pushed to the foreground. Put simply, not many people make records like this.
“I was looking outwards a lot more,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on his programme back in May. “I think a lot of my work has often been about the interior, the emotional, what happens inside oneself. And this time I’ve been just looking out, so it’s not only to do with taking a look at England but taking a look at the world and what happening in current world affairs. But always trying to come from the human point of view, because I don’t feel qualified to sing from a political standpoint… I sing as a human being affected by the politics, and that for me is a more successful way … because I so often feel that with a lot of protest music, I’m being preached to, and I don’t want that.”.
By way of an introduction, there is the title song: “The West’s asleep. Let England shake/weighted down with silent dead.” As with so much of the record, the arrangement and melody have echoes of vernacular music going back centuries, but also push somewhere new: certainly, identifying any prevailing influence on this music is almost impossible. The lyrics hint at England’s post-imperial delusions, and yet another hapless soldier marching off to the front – themes that recur in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, ‘All And Everyone’, and ‘Hanging In The Wire’. But there is something else here: a brilliantly poetic picture of England itself – an old country, now creaking with age and experience, whose history is etched into the hearts and minds of the people who live here. One of the songs here is simply called ‘England’, and makes the point explicit: “I live and die/through England./It leaves/sadness./It leaves a taste,/a bitter one.”
‘Let England Shake’ evokes the troubled spirit of 2010, but it also casts its mind back to times and places from our long collective memory. In keeping with such imaginative intentions, its music has a rare breadth and emotional power. Nearly two decades after she made her first records, it proves not just that its author refuses to stand still, but that her creative confidence may well be at an all-time high. It is safe to say that you will not have heard anything like it before.
From the outset, PJ Harvey has commanded attention. She formed the bass / drums / guitar trio in 1991 in Dorset, England and by autumn had released the debut single, \'Dress\', on independent label Too Pure. Harvey began an impressive critical climb, which set the stage for a highly anticipated album release the following month. \'Dry\' was hailed as an astonishing debut, not just in the UK but worldwide and especially in the United States, where Rolling Stone named Harvey Best Songwriter and Best New Female Singer.
In 1993, PJ Harvey signed to Island Records and began work on a follow-up album, \'Rid Of Me\' which was released in early \'93. The album was supported by a lengthy world tour, drawing increasingly wide audiences and Harvey\'s first Mercury Prize nomination. The original trio dissolved and Harvey’s solo work \'4-Track Demos\' was released in the autumn of 1993. \'To Bring You My Love\' followed in 1995, an eclectic and starkly original album. The tour which followed saw Harvey explore a theatrical edge to her live performance. She received her second nomination for the Mercury Music Prize and was nominated for two Grammies, received \'1995 Artist Of The Year\' awards from Rolling Stone and Spin and gained album of the year acknowledgements across the board.
Her fourth album,\' Is This Desire?\' was released in September \'98 and attracted plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic gaining nominations for The Brits and The Grammy Awards. \'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea\', the much anticipated follow-up to \'Is This Desire?\' was released in October 2000. This album won the Mercury Music Prize in 2001, \'Stories...\' was supported by a lengthy world-wide sellout tour. After a summer of live dates - including the first rock concert at The Tate Modern Gallery, London. Harvey finished work on the album \'Uh Huh Her\' in the autumn of 2003 which was supported by a world-wide tour and saw Harvey perform in South America for the first time. ‘White Chalk’ was PJ Harvey\'s critically acclaimed seventh album, it marked a new departure for Harvey and was composed almost entirely on piano. It was supported by a string of notable solo performances including Manchester International Festival, The Royal Festival Hall, the Hay-On-Wye Festival of Literature, the New Yorker Festival and a performance at Copenhagen opera house for the Crown Prince couple.
Recording followed the 2006 release of \'PJ Harvey: The Peel Sessions\', a collection of Harvey\'s recordings for the veteran British broadcaster spanning her whole career. That year also saw the release of \'PJ Harvey On Tour: Please Leave Quietly\', Harvey\'s first DVD which was filmed during the Uh Huh Her tour. Other projects have included soundtrack work on the films \'Basquiat\' by Julian Schnabel, \'Stella Does Tricks\' by Coky Giedroyc, \'The Cradle Will Rock\' by Tim Robbins & \'Six Feet Under\'. In 2009 Harvey composed the soundtrack for renowned director, Ian Rickson’s, New York production of Hedda Gabler. Also she appeared as Mary Magdalene in Hal Hartley’s movie \'The Book Of Life\' in 1999.
In 1996 she worked on the album \'Dance Hall At Louse Point\' with John Parish for both the album and a live accompaniment to the Mark Bruce Dance Company production of the same name. The follow up collaboration with Parish was released in Spring of 2009 – ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’. An extensive tour of Europe and America followed. The video for the first single from this album, ‘Black Hearted Love’, was directed by the acclaimed British artists, Jake & Dino Chapman. She has collaborated with an extraordinary range of musicians, including Thom Yorke, Nick Cave, Tricky, Bjork, Hal Wilner, Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, Pascal Comelade, Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes and Sparklehorse.
She joined Queen\'s of the Stoneage\'s Josh Homme on his critically acclaimed \'Desert Sessions\' project  and worked with Mark Lanegan on his solo album, ‘Bubblegum’. Harvey produced the debut album by American artist Tiffany Anders and also wrote, recorded & produced material for Marianne Faithfull\'s \'Before The Poison\' . In addition to her musical career Harvey paints, draws, sculpts, and writes poetry & prose. Last summer saw Harvey guest design Francis Ford Coppola’s art & literary magazine; Zoetrope: All-Story. The issue featured previously unseen artwork, sculpture and drawings by PJ Harvey. Harvey made a guest appearance on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show in May 2010, the week before the UK general election. She was interviewed by Marr and performed ‘Let England Shake’ in front of Marr’s other guest, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
Harvey is currently collaborating on various visual projects with the respected photo-journalist Seamus Murphy. Murphy, an award winning photographer, has spent over two decades uniquely documenting conflict through his lens. His work has brought him to Rwanda, Eritrea, Kosovo, Iran and Iraq. He has also spent extensive periods of time photographing Afghanistan, and his most recent book ‘A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan’ is a classic illustration of life in Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban and the impact of U.S. invasion.