Recorded in a 19th century Dorset church, Polly Jean's latest focuses heavily on nationalism, warfare, and the use and abuse of the autoharp.
Last year Polly Jean Harvey turned 41, prepared her eighth studio, Let England Shake -- and marked the tenth anniversary of 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
I mention Stories as a watershed moment in an already rich, extraordinary solo career. That was the year Harvey did the unspeakable and unthinkable: she made a pop album. A big, sleek, mom-friendly pop album, with bright melodies and an attractive cover shot and lyrics about love and redemption and New York City. It’s not her best work (I favor Is This Desire? and its associated b-sides; you might choose To Bring You My Love), but it did win her a Mercury Prize, a million sales worldwide, even a spot on Time’s 100 best albums of all time. In short: all the commercial viability and success she has spent the decade since rejecting -- confirming (or reassuming) the uncompromising artistic integrity that brought us Rid of Me, among others.
Let England Shake is the latest in a series of post-Stories albums designed on some level to further shed that album’s commercial diva status. First came Uh Huh Her (2004), whose stark production and acerbic temperament rendered it the natural, if unhappy, foil to Stories’ uplift. Then, the brilliant and ghostly White Chalk, whose eerie piano-driven balladry seems more a product of 1807 than 2007. Now we have Let England Shake: lyrically, an exploration of warfare and Harvey’s native England; musically, an extended flirtation with past and present folk traditions, with a particular interest in the autoharp. Say what you will -- she’s not playing it safe.
First, some facts:
- Let England Shake took nearly three years to write -- and five weeks to record.
- This took place at a 19th century Dorset church overlooking the sea. Why not? Longtime collaborators Flood and John Parish coproduced, along with former Bad Seed Mick Harvey.
- Background research took Harvey from historical and anthropological writings on the history of warfare to recent testimonies from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Cited influences: The Pogues. The Velvet Underground. Kubrick films (including, not surprisingly, Paths of Glory). Salvador Dali. Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War”. “As much ancient, traditional music as I could [listen to].” I believe her.
This is not a “loose” song cycle à la, say, last year’s Plastic Beach. Let England Shake is unflinchingly conceptual, devoted in its entirety to themes of warfare and the nationalistic discourse lurking behind centuries of mass destruction (“the words that maketh murder”). “England’s dancing days are done,” Harvey cries on the title track, which also opens the record. “I fear our blood won’t rise again.” Her perspective throughout much of this record is that of an Englishwoman uncomfortable with her nation’s imperialistic endeavors. Even more caustic is the excellent, mid-tempo melodicism of “The Last Living Rose”: “Take me back to beautiful England," she demands in her trademark mid-range moan (like White Chalk, much of this album is sung in a quavering, high register; here is the exception). Back to “the grey, damp filthiness of ages.” And then: “Let me walk through the stinking alleys / To the music of drunken beatings.” At barely two minutes -- enough time for a driving rhythm and honking horn interlude -- it’s one of the album’s strongest songs, particularly because the music feels as forceful as the lyrics.
Elsewhere, focus is on the bleak imagery of warfare, bringing to mind All Quiet on the Western Front as much as it does the aforementioned works by Goya and Kubrick. The especially gloomy “All and Everyone” obsesses over death’s ubiquitous presence (best line: “Death was in the staring sun / Fixing its eyes on everyone”), while “On Battleship Hill” paints a chilling picture of war’s lingering scent (“On Battleship Hill's caved-in trenches / A hateful feeling still lingers / Even now, 80 years later”). Then there’s “The Words That Maketh Murder”, which memorably juxtaposes images of “soldiers fal[ling] like lumps of meat” (“Blown and shot out beyond belief / Arms and legs were in the trees”) with a bouncy, horn-inflected, call-and-response. Don’t miss the second verse, where the singer continues her disturbing battlefield survey (“I've seen and done things I want to forget”) atop a disturbing male chorus chanting the title in unwavering unison. This is gripping and compelling music and lyricism, strangely unlike anything else in Harvey’s discography; when it works, as on this song, it’s due to the studied commitment with which she approaches the project. As on her severest past records (Rid of Me, Is This Desire?), every song, every note, feels all-consuming, almost uncomfortably so -- even if the historical and international scope of these lyrics largely precludes the hauntingly personal emphasis of past records.
Much has been made of the supposed jarring contrast on this record between the gruesome nature of the lyrics and the comparatively lush, orchestrated quality of the music. This is, I think, a misleading overstatement: miles removed from the blistering noise and blues influence of earlier records (and despite the admittedly gorgeous “Hanging In The Wire” and “On Battleship Hill”), Let England Shake is still a remarkably eerie and unsettling piece of work. I think of the title track, with its queasy, shrieking vocal melody and arrhythmic autoharp strumming atop a sample of the Four Lads’ “Istanbul” (think “Broken Harp” as a loose starting point). Here is where Harvey introduces an off-putting vocal styling for the record: a frail, uncharacteristically high-pitched wail (see: “Oh, England!” chorus on “The Glorious Land”), more akin to Bjork than early era Harvey. I think of “England”, one of the album’s most chilling moments, with its tortured, multi-tracked moaning tantrums, its near sickening string staccato. (“To you, England, I cling,” Harvey wails: “Undaunted, never failing love for you.” This is unnerving.) I think of how John Parish’s lower octave voice undercuts Harvey’s on “In The Dark Places”, or the use of Niney the Observer’s reggae classic “Blood And Fire” sampled on the strangely lush “Written on the Forehead” (“let it burn, let it burn,” Harvey sings along). Orchestrated? Yes. But far from soothing.
Harvey began writing lyrics for the record well before focusing on music, and this speaks to the album’s only glaring weakness: it shows. Compared to the measured lyrical depth, the music feels like a rushed afterthought on a few tracks (think Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible). “All and Everyone”, for example, seems content to coast on a plodding chord progression and aimless autoharp strumming for nearly six minutes, while “The Glorious Land”’s attempt to incorporate a “Reveille” sample feels conceptually sound but musically clunky, little helping the song’s already underwritten arrangements (the tendency to favor improvisation against studio rehearsal clearly shows in such moments). Exploring neither the seductive studio trickery of Is This Desire? nor the haunting sparseness of White Chalk, this small handful of moments feels caught between the two extremes: Harvey has an abundance of intriguing instrumental elements at her fingertips, but occasionally yields to overly simplistic arrangements that fail to take advantage of their possibilities, or places an overreliance on the limited uses of the autoharp. But this frustration detracts mildly at best: Let England Shake is a rewarding and staunchly uncompromising piece of art from a master songwriter who remains as relevant as ever. If it all feels a bit foreign or new, it’s because Harvey, as always, refuses to repeat herself.