This PJ Harvey article was written by Stephen Butchard, a GIGsoup contributor
Even without ‘Let England Shake’ PJ Harvey’s impact on modern music is undeniable. Her early albums provided some of the most visceral and rewarding guitar work of the nineties, a sound many are eager to hear return – but PJ isn’t one to repeat herself. From the twisted trip-hop backdrop of ‘Is this Desire?’ to the eerie piano balladry of ‘White Chalk’, she has constantly challenged not only herself, but the expectations of her audience. A decade after flirting with more traditional pop and rock on her first Mercury Prize winning triumph, ‘Stories from the Cities, Stories from the Sea’, Harvey released perhaps the most ambitious and cohesive project she’d ever made. She would be an icon without ‘Let England Shake’, but with it, PJ Harvey seems unstoppable.
The album led to Harvey’s second win at the Mercurys – the first artist to do so twice. A sales increase of 1190% followed, introducing an icon to a new generation whilst celebrating her existence for those already familiar.
Surrounded by other strong nominees, though, the win didn’t look as certain. James Blake’s immaculate debut is the most boundary pushing on the list, and still stuns in its compositional beauty and experimental flare. Everything Everything’s scatterbrained ‘Man Alive’ is just as evocative and explorative, but with a playfulness that leave it almost impossible to listen to without beaming.
Elsewhere, Katy B’s On a Mission remains a stellar pop record, while ‘Diamond Mine’, a collaborative album from King Cresote and Jon Hopkins, catapulted two fantastic artists into the spotlight with a confident show of talent. Notable snubs and curveballs could have been just as worthy of winning, such as SBTRKT’s sleek debut, which predicted British dance music’s current direction through its polished presentation and elastic beatwork.
Given the quality of these albums, all from relative newcomers no less, awarding a previous winner could easily be seen as redundant. Still, the Mercury’s mission statement has always been to award the best album of the year, regardless of its creator’s stature. ‘Let England Shake’, for many, is that album.
Recorded in St Peter’s church in Dorset over a five-week period, it sees Harvey backed by a full band for the first time in several albums – with autoharp, piano and saxophone added for good measure. The result is a haunting reflection on England as an institution, but also a reflection on effects of war and the falsity of patriotism, distilled through her characteristically disturbing lyricism. Rather than spotlighting her vocals in their coarse, guttural range as on her provocative early work, Harvey instead floats above in the upper register, almost eerily so. The lavish production and earworm melodies could almost trick you into thinking that what’s on display is pretty rather than tragic, speaking volumes to Harvey’s skill as a songwriter.
Four years later, Harvey is working on her next project. From an artist as consistent as her, it could well shake England again.