How many albums has Polly Jean Harvey put out up to now? Nine, is it? Ten? Shouldn’t she be settled well into a rut, set on repeat, with any new album being basically a safe re-iteration of past glories that can be dismissed as harmless and reassuring? She certainly shouldn’t be casually releasing masterpieces like Let England Shake twenty years into her career as if she’s only just now worked out how great her talent is and how to harness it effectively. This is by some way the best album she’s ever made and that statement is by no means meant to belittle the many and varied great works that came before it.
Harvey’s always had a pathological dread of repeating herself and in the same way that the roughed-up grunge of Rid Of Me was a shock after the spare jazz-rock of Dry and the ghostly White Chalk seemed to come from a different dimension to that of the sassy Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea this new album bears scant resemblance to anything else in her discography. A few constants remain, most significantly Harvey’s at times extraordinary vocals (I can’t imagine any other singer attempting the stunning high-register pyrotechnics in the first verse of On Battleship Hill without it sounding like a sterile opera exercise), but the sound here is much more reined-in and disciplined. There’s usually a band playing on these tracks (Harvey plus long-time multi-instrumentalist collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey) but the arrangements are so taut and stripped-down that they never call attention to themselves and the necessary space is made for Harvey’s amazingly assured and original new compositions to make their full impact.
These songs are quite something. I hate to use terms like “concept album” but there are undeniably two strong themes running through the lyrics that have the effect of unifying the individual tracks into a coherent whole. One is a sense of melancholy and regret for the loss of an ancient country’s natural, pre-industrial habitats – the word “England” occurs repeatedly in song titles and words, and there are many mentions of trees, fields, rivers and hills. The other is the futility and waste of modern warfare, with particular reference to the trenches of the First World War. The lyrics are littered with stark, unvarnished imagery that recalls Goya’s Disasters of War sequence: young men’s bodies as lumps of meat, damp and bloodied earth, death waiting in the smoke. After years of writing about personal and often impenetrable themes Harvey’s new found clarity is startling.
The subject matter of this record as described above probably makes it sound like it’s a depressing, dirgy sort of listen. It’s really not. This is the most accessible and uplifting music Harvey’s ever put out, even more so than the conventional indie guitar rock of Stories From The City…, which was sneered at in some quarters for being some kind of sell-out. The album’s rife with inventive yet catchy melodies set to clear, fluent and uncluttered arrangements which deftly dodge the hokey folk or music-hall adornments you might expect given the elegiac nature of the lyrics, but at the same time find room for plenty of unexpected and idiosyncratic details: the riff of the title track is borrowed from novelty song Istanbul (Not Constantinople), there’s a trumpet playing reveille here, a quote from Summertime Blues there, some sampled chanting providing an effective counterpoint in Written On The Forehead. Harvey clearly knows how powerful her material is, as she doesn’t indulge in any unnecessary vocal histrionics and for the most part sings in a restrained manner that’s almost deadpan and is the perfect delivery method for this particular batch of songs. The Glorious Land sounds like a classy indie floor-filler until you process the lyric and its mournful images of lost youth, and the muted Hanging In The Wire is almost overwhelmingly beautiful, with its evocation of a misty and hopeless no-man’s-land set to a simple piano-led theme. Only the closing The Colour Of The Earth with its military drum pattern and folky trappings fails to pull off the trick of sounding both completely modern and timelessly affecting.
PJ Harvey already has one of the most surprising and rewarding discographies of anyone making rock music over the last two decades. Let England Shake makes it feel like she’s only just now getting going. I await her next album with awe.