Three tracks, two videos, and a few autoharp-backed live previews in, the direction PJ Harvey has taken on her eighth LP, Let England Shake, is still a bit unclear to these ears. But here’s hoping that will evolve over the course of the next forty minutes, as the 12-track effort is now streaming in full over on NPR.
Perhaps understanding Harvey’s songwriting process for LP8 offers a key to acquainting oneself with the “indefinable” elements of the result: She spent two full years laboring over the lyrics, recruiting trusted friends to offer criticism on the words alone. With that step fine-tuned, Harvey described adding music to the words in a recent interview:
I knew that to make a sound that was going to add more weight to the words was not going to do them a good service because they were weighty enough as they were. I didn’t want to fall into that trap of coming across as too dogmatic or too self-important. The music had to offset the words entirely, so I was looking to make music that was quite indefinable, but very energetic and quite uplifting. I tried to find melodies that I could walk to or would want to sing along with.
She’s come a long way since the days in which the lyrical focus, guitar-driven thrust, and arrangements were all thrillingly aimed in unison at destroying — musically and possibly otherwise — a single person or subject. I miss those old Harvey records, sure, but applaud her new direction — as ambiguous as it may be — here, particularly on the title track, in which she transforms a timeless sample of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” from being obnoxiously catchy to downright haunting. As always, Harvey makes our skin crawl.