PJ Harvey's last record, 2007's White Chalk, was stark, unwelcoming, and kind of sublime. A pop artiste who's unusually committed to the oft-heard goal of "never repeating herself," Harvey ditched her guitar and her growl for pervasively haunted piano ballads, gasped in vaporous puffs. Its disquieting tone, both intimate and inscrutable, is left behind in turn on Let England Shake, the first overtly political record of her 20-year career. The record conveys its anti-war message with shifting bits and pieces of far-flung pop detritus. It's as aesthetically restless as its lyrics are uniformly pointed—a fun-sounding record of relentlessly brutal imagery.
More than just a new sonic wrinkle, Harvey's use of appropriated pop material seems intellectually calculated. Though the sample was removed in the end, the bouncing gait of the Four Lads' 1953 song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" pervades the title track, doubling its abstractly anti-colonial words with the more obvious ones hanging in the listener's head ("Nobody's business but the Turks!"). "Gonna take my problem to the United Nations" is not a line lifted from "Summertime Blues" arbitrarily. This conceptual coherence, in comparison to the muddled slogans of an M.I.A. or a Green Day, say, is appreciated. It still ends up a little overblown though, no matter how dark and weirdly catchy her instence that the fruit of "The Glorious Land" is "deformed children" might be. When things get political, they stop being universal. And despite the admirable breadth of Let England Shake's sound, relatable creeps are still what Harvey does best.