Album review: PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
Restless chanteuse PJ Harvey reinvents both sound and subject once more with a superlative suite of songs addressing war and imperialism
PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
Island, 13.99 *****
POLLY Jean Harvey has keenly felt the songwriter's fear of repeating herself, constantly shifting her artistic goalposts from album to album, and returning every few years with a fresh, cohesive work, each litter of songs birthed from a specific environment – such as the influence of New York on her Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea – or a challenge she has set herself.
Her previous album, White Chalk, was written on piano, an instrument she had only just learned to play, and sung in an unfamiliar falsetto which took her into intoxicating new territory. She arguably moves even further into her discomfort zone on her eighth album, Let England Shake.
Until now, Harvey has written almost exclusively about the interior world – the sexual reversals of Dry, the southern gothic mantras of To Bring You My Love, the ghostly presence of White Chalk, even the exhilarated lover of Stories From The City… was caught up in her own romantic rapture. It is only now, 20 years into a consistently fascinating career, that she has felt ready to engage with the wider world.
But when Polly is ready, she attacks her subject like no one else. Let England Shake is a superlative suite of songs about war and imperialism, in which she assumes the role of war poet/ songwriter.
In meticulous preparation, she read history books and listened to folk and protest songs from around the world. She took 18 months to write the lyrics, all completed before penning a note of music. And when she was ready, she chose to make her comeback not in the safe haven of Later with Jools Holland, but on The Andrew Marr Show, in front of Gordon Brown, who was still Prime Minister at the time.
But Harvey is not throwing eggs at the government. Her songs are intended to be lyrical, not preachy and, as such, have a devastating power. She makes specific reference on a handful of tracks to the Gallipoli campaign from the First World War but feels that other songs might be set in Bosnia or some historical Russian conflict, her point being that she could be writing about any war, such is the deadly cycle of conflict.
Having made that decision, she does not flinch in her depiction of the scene, whether drawing on survivor accounts from the Great War on the haunted folk of Hanging On The Wire, painting a visceral yet poetic description of the battlefield ("death's anchorage") on All And Everyone, looking with bitter retrospection On Battleship Hill where the "scent of thyme … stings your face into remembering cruel nature has won again" or having Mick Harvey, an Australian, sing the part of an ANZAC veteran remembering a fallen friend on The Colour of the Earth.
She says she felt called to make an album with many voices, inhabiting different vocal registers as the songs require. For the most part she uses the upper end of her range, sounding eerie, but less ethereal and fragile than she did on the sublime White Chalk, though that marvellous falsetto reappears on the baleful On Battleship Hill.
Let England Shake is also a real departure musically, making use of the toytown multi-stringed strum of autoharp, mournful Mellotron, skiffly rhythms and disarmingly hummable melodies to create an unsettling, yet engrossing, sound palette.
The title track combines a bewitching melody, sprung rhythm and Harvey's creepily playful vocal with its dread message that "the West's asleep, let England shake, weighted down with silent dead". Harvey says she has no wish to lecture but she doesn't pull her punches either on The Glorious Land, a disquieting chime which asks bluntly "what is the glorious fruit of our land? its fruit is orphan children" like the darkest nursery rhyme. Dreaming of the home front, The Last Living Rose is a truly bittersweet homesick lament ("let me walk through the stinking alleys to the music of drunken beatings") which Laura Marling might just kill for.
Written On The Forehead is an uncomfortable marriage of Harvey's elegy for Iraq and an awkwardly integrated sample of reggae track Blood And Fire which sounds like two songs playing simultaneously in Bobby Gillespie's head. But everything comes together on current single The Words That Maketh Murder which succeeds in combining the upbeat soundtrack of kick drum, handclaps, horns and a jaunty Eddie Cochran-referencing chorus of "what if I take my problems to the United Nations" with blunt references to severed limbs in trees.
That it recalls both the shocking imagery of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit and the musical audacity of Kate Bush is only a testament to the creative company which PJ Harvey keeps.
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