Polly Jean Harvey is rock’s most reliable and accomplished chameleon. Her stated credo is to never record an album that sounds like a PJ Harvey album, and it’s one that she’s yet to breach. Her sterling career has run the gamut from post-punk to the eerie piano ballad, with abrasive guitar rock, stomping metaphysical blues, cerebral electonica, lush pop-rock, and raw folk checked-off along the way. Certain trademarks appear throughout: her searing intensity, often expressed in her quietest moments, a Dylanesque inhabitation of character that approaches method acting, a vampish theatricality that transcends the over-the-top. And then there’s Harvey’s singular vocal instrument, which spans the guttural growl of her lower register, the caterwaul of her middle register, and the icy fragility of her falsetto. Much like Dylan, as Harvey continues to shed her skin with serpentine abandon, every album is unmistakably hers.
And that’s a very good thing. In terms of artistry, Harvey has few peers. Of her last seven proper albums, four are masterpieces. The breathtaking To Bring You My Love, Harvey’s greatest achievement, is a howling classic that ranks with the best of the nineties. Harvey’s earliest works (Dry and Rid of Me) and 2001’s gorgeous Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea are merely superb. Even Harvey’s lesser-works are impressive. For as frustrating as it can be, Is This Desire? remains captivating, with moments of great warmth amidst its cold electronic experimentation. The lo-fi tantrum of Uh Huh Her only falters when compared to its juggernaut siblings. Harvey’s previous album, 2007’s White Chalk, is an oddity that comes closest to being a disappointment. On it Harvey sings Victorian ghost stories, at the top of her vocal range, with a piano as her primary accompaniment. Though it has its (often harrowing) moments, it is too spare and monochromatic, a work that succeeds better in conception than in execution.
PJ Harvey rights things with Let England Shake. Unlike White Chalk, it is sonically and texturally diverse. Where Uh Huh Her found Harvey playing the one-woman-band, many voices, instrumental and vocal, join Harvey’s on Let England Shake’s twelve tracks. It’s her most collaborative work, notwithstanding her two side projects with John Parish (who is featured prominently on Let England Shake). It is also PJ Harvey’s strongest and most accessible album since Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
When I first heard the album’s title last year, I expected a return to the raucous electric-guitar glory days of Rid of Me. But England doesn't shake; it shuffles, skips, and sways. It’s an entirely mid-tempo acoustic album, but one that mixes gentleness with moments of true bombast. The forceful and angry “Bitter Branches” recalls “C’mon Billy” from To Bring You My Love, with Harvey strumming her acoustic guitar so furiously you can almost hear her fingers bleed. On the xylophone-driven title track, Harvey sings “England’s dancing days are done.” But the music suggests otherwise. A high-hat rattles, a saxophone honks, a trombone blares, and a mischievous Harvey vocal twists and turns over the drumbeat.
Let England Shake can be a riot, but lyrically it is morose, almost to the point of being apocalyptic. Like White Chalk, Let England Shake is thematically pure. These are songs of war and of Harvey’s titular mother country. Harvey eschews topicality for universality. When she does get specific, the focus is not Iraq nor Afghanistan (with the notable exception of “Written on the Forehead”), but the monumental bloodshed of World War I. For an album about war, Let England Shake is remarkably apolitical. PJ Harvey, here at her least introspective, is more interested in making the horror of war, the barbarism that is still a sad fact of modernity, personal:
I have seen and done things I want to forget;
Soldiers fell like lumps of meat,
Blown and shot out beyond belief.
Arms and legs were in the trees.
As the title of one of her tracks declares, the specter of death haunts “All and Everyone.” And it also haunts Let England Shake.
Mercifully, PJ Harvey delivers some exquisitely tuneful songs to temper the shellshock of her lyrics. “The Last Living Rose” and “Hanging in the Wire” are lovely, ruminative ballads. There’s an almost celebratory feel to “The Words That Maketh Murder” and “The Glorious Land.” The pub-song finale of “The Colour of the Earth,” led by Mick Harvey, is a rousing elegy, and like all funeral songs, is both uplifting and immensely sad.
Let England Shake is almost too good at being suffocating. It is the dark twin of Stories from the City, the War to its Love. And just as the latter forever invites you to return to its joyful city streets, the former dares you to confront the wreckage of its battlegrounds. Let England Shake is PJ Harvey’s love letter to England and all that she has endured, an album easier to admire than to stomach.