The album opens with PJ Harvey singing lightly over this marching instrumentation, which has a nostalgic feel while still feeling fresh (cliche album review statements yeah!) What's interesting about this track is how sweet Harvey sounds, and while the instrumentation is kind of creepy it's catchy as hell, and this is juxtaposed with lines like "Let England Shake weighted down with silent dead" and references to "the fountain of death."
It's this tension where much of the beauty of the album is found. Citing influences ranging from Salvador Dali, to T.S. Eliot to contemporary soldier testimonies there's this pervasive sense of dread, but also a great beauty and undeniable pop zest to some of the songs. The result is some of the strongest, and most haunting material by PJ Harvey to date.
There's elements of dream pop here as well, such as on the very airy track (and this sort of lighter than air sound is an aesthetic featured on every song) "The Glorious Land" that has this childish group chant in the middle, that is haunting in it's innocent. The closing track is disturbing in a similar way. The closing track is a duet, with Mick Harvey (what's up Nick Cave fans). "The Colour of the Earth" talks about losing Louis, a dear friend in a trench and how he's become nothing but a pile of bones. Songs like this are scary, because of the tension created by the instrumentation and almost childish vocals. It's a highlight of how PJ Harvey's new vocal styling adds an element to this album, the use of the saxophone and the element it adds to the songs is also always delightful (I figure since I'm reviewing an album called Let England Shake, and I'm not drinking tea I should use words like "delightful" as much as possible. I think it's delightful.")
The album's first single, "The Words That Maketh Murder" shows PJ singing in a Newsomish voice "soldiers fall[ing] like lumps of meat" and all the things that the narrator has "seen and done" that they'd rather forget, and the song ends with the punchline "what if I take my problem to the United Nations?"
The song "England" has a theme of Paralysis, a la Joyce's' Dubliners - it talks about being stuck, and clinging to England though "never failing love for" it. What's interesting about this track, is at it's heart it's an acoustic ballad but it has all sorts of weird singing experimentations and noises go on that the result is a song that is a song that is downright disturbing.
PJ Harvey established herself as one of the great singer-songwriters of our time from the very beginning, now, nearly twenty years after her debut, she's showing she still has it, maybe more so then when she began. There isn't a weak moment on this album, and there's a pervading sense of dread that keeps you listening, even if it's unsettling in it's innocent observations, and delivery observation of mankind's darkness.