“Let England Shake” – PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey is one of an elite few artists whose albums rank among the best of each of the last three decades. If she’s somehow still underrated, it’s because she’s always been ever so slightly out of step with the scenes of the moment. 

She entered the ‘90s a uniquely raw and confrontational voice, occupying what would be a brief, grunge-adjacent moment in the UK before Britpop took over. After breaking up her eponymous trio she released a series of excellent records exploring elements of blues, folk and trip-hop, peaking with 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea – the album I’d argue best closes the book on ‘90s alt rock.

In the later ‘00s, Harvey swapped her signature powerhouse vocal delivery for a more vulnerable head voice. She continued to hone and expand that sound on 2011’s Let England Shake, a prescient meditation on Englishness composed largely on autoharp. It’s a weird album that’s very different from her acclaimed early work. I think it’s also her masterpiece.

There are several songs I considered highlighting here, but I’m going with the title track – in part because of this early solo performance on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. The final recorded version of the track is built around a xylophone melody that mimics “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” but in this performance it’s an explicitly sampled loop of the phrase “Take me back to Constantinople / no you can’t go back to Constantinople.” Dressed in raven-black feathers that would stick as her aesthetic throughout the 2010s, Harvey strums her autoharp and prophesies, “The West’s asleep, let England shake / weighted down with silent dead / I fear our blood won’t rise again,” while, surreally, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown watches the performance live on a studio monitor.

Less than a month later, Brown would resign and David Cameron would take office, and we all know how things have gone since.