Eleven years after its release: a complete collection of demos comprising PJ Harvey’s seminal 2011 record, Let England Shake. Part of a sweeping reissue campaign, this collection fittingly precedes the upcoming release of Orlam, the musician’s narrative poetry and visual art publication. Peeling back the endless layers of Let England Shake not only helps to expose its brilliant autoharp and brass arrangements, but also opens space to examine Harvey’s lyrical themes, haunting reflections of wartime conflicts (past and present) and poignant imagery of old country England.
The most immediate and telling tidbit of these early takes is Harvey’s use of a handful of 1950s songs as literal samples for source material. Whereas the original “The Words That Maketh Murder” cleverly layers a trio of harmonies to paraphrase a line from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”, the demo features a looped sample of the Cochran lyric “what if I take my problem to the United Nations?” as the song’s entire backdrop. This method is repeated in a rough, early take of the title track with Harvey’s grittier vocals overlaying a continuous fragment of the chorus of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, a 1953 novelty tune by vocal quartet the Four Lads.
The depth and cohesiveness of both the songs and their visual counterparts make the project feel like a bonafide multimedia experience. Along with the focused, sampled material, Harvey confidently references inspirations ranging from T.S. Eliot to Stanley Kubrick as a framework. The unforgettable ramble of “Take me back to beautiful England/and the grey, damp filthiness of ages” is even more salient here when stripped down to just the accompanying glide of an electric guitar. As a work, this is precisely the type of album that demands a closer look behind the curtain, as these demos further one’s appreciation rather than simply offering leftover vignettes. | m neeley