Today the Uncut Music Award judges discuss the album that turned out to be their winner; PJ Harvey‘s “Let England Shake”.
Allan Jones: This is probably one of the year’s best reviewed records, it’s already won the Mercury Prize, and has emerged has both a career best and a landmark record. It’s ambitious in terms of its scope, very poetic, it’s a meditation on England and its role in the world, and PJ’s own role in England. It brilliantly uses ancient conflicts to illuminate current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iran, via songs involving the battle of Gallipoli. I think it’s a brave and dramatic record.
Mark Cooper: For me, she’s been the best British artist of the last 20 years; a brilliantly inventive and self-demanding artist. Her mode of writing is really impressive on this. I was always disappointed that she didn’t become a big rock star around the time of To Bring You My Love like she was shaping up to be, but I think that would have probably killed her. I think she’s reinvented a way of writing, in a similar way to how Tom Waits reinvented a way of writing that works for him. It’s like, to me, she found a war memorial somewhere in Dorset and read the list of names and transposed herself inside the price of those journeys.
You can feel the weight of British history in these songs, which is an incredibly powerful thing to channel, and I really admire that. I think it’s a brilliant record, but having said that I think there’s a couple of really stinker songs on it. I don’t really go through it listing them, that would be annoying, because ultimately it doesn’t detract from the record’s genius for me. But there are couple of songs that don’t quite stand alongside the incredibly high quality of 90 per cent of the record, and 90 per cent of this record is a masterpiece. I know I sound really mean and snotty, it’s just that I have really high standards for her because she has such high standards for herself.
Phil Manzanera: I think she ticks all the boxes in terms of an artist with a brain who likes challenges. I think it’s telling that the lyrics are quite short on every single track, she’s distilled it down. You look at some artists and there are pages and pages of words to say what they want to say, but she does it in a very pithy sort of way, which is great. What I also like is that there seems to be more melody than I’ve heard on a few of her albums. The musical context is great, John Parrish and the other people working with her resist the temptation to overdub too much, it’s very stark. It’s the PJ album I love the best.
Tony Wadsworth: In the past I’ve always wanted to like her more than I did. I knew her records were really good, but why didn’t I want to play them more than three or four times and really fall in love with them? I’ve not been able to do that with any of them until this one. It really got to me emotionally, all the issues about Englishness, loss of Empire, the futility of war. It reminded me, lyrically, of The Good, The Bad & The Queen album – musically as well, because that was quite sparse. So, yes, I could relate this emotionally more than any of her other stuff.
Linda Thompson: I loved it, I was impressed that a woman could go through a whole album and not mention some stupid bloke, except a stupid dead bloke. I love anything without hooks and choruses, that’s bliss for me, and these songs are beautifully played – beautifully underplayed.
Stewart Lee: I like the fact that she’s not really in it, it’s quite an ego-less record. I think the instrumentation’s really interesting, it’s different to most things you’d expect to see covered in Uncut. I think the lyrics are interesting, they do a really good job. Sometimes songwriters get praised for using complicated language and showing you their vocabulary, but a lyric is not the same as a poem, and it’s not the same as prose.
But the words here do the job they’re supposed to do, and if they do seem a little bit clichéd in places, a bit like on the Gillian Welch record, it’s because they have a deliberate relationship with existing poetry or folk song or hymns. The subject matter is written about really well without being preachy or dogmatic or necessarily taking a position, she’s not there as an authorial voice. I’ve always been impressed by her, but this the first of her records that has really stopped me in my tracks, that made me feel emotions I was really surprised by. I like the use of the samples, where they appear to be off the beat, it’s quite jarring in places. It’s interesting where the sounds sit in the mix, it’s sort of the opposite of the Fleet Foxes album in the way, they take you by surprise.
Nick Stewart: I need to declare a few interests here. Firstly, I was in the army so I can absolutely relate to what she’s singing about. Secondly, her manager also oversees someone I work with, but for my money this is the outstanding album on this list. I think it’s a work of absolute genius. I went to see her at the Royal Albert Hall, the record was beautifully reproduced and it was a mesmeric evening. I think this is a stone cold classic, I can understand why it won the Mercury Prize. An absolute work of genius.