PJ Harvey: “Let England Shake”
Our Polly Jean sure has come a long way, hasn’t she? When she first struck out, she was a minstrel of rage, a high priestess of raw ache; she left her mark through sheer gutbucket force, lyrics that sounded like they had been scrawled on a mirror with lipstick the color of dried blood– lyrics that sounded like they were more word-vomit than poetry, all of it carefully arranged, I’d imagine, to sound off-the-cuff and spontaneous. These days, she’s spending months at a time crafting those lyrics, something she’s been pretty up-front about in the interviews for Let England Shake; she’s also said this batch of songs was inspired by “poetry and politics,” which strikes me as something she’d never have let on to in the early days of, say, Rid of Me. And the battle lines have already been drawn: I’ve seen a few critics who say they miss the earlier, messier, more human stuff. But this is, on its most primitive level, an album about war. Pretty messy, pretty basic. The sense of craft is nothing new; it’s only grown more sophisticated. And the gutbucket momentum– the sheer, bawdy pull of the music– hasn’t left. Me, I think it’s her best album yet.
And how could it not be? She’s basically created her own new canon of folk music here, condensing a couple centuries’ worth of history into a set of campfire songs and ghost stories, battle hymns and national anthems, that barely clocks in over the 40-minute mark. Not bad. And if you think I’m kidding, listen to the damn thing. Let England Shake sounds like the alternate folklore for a bloody national history that, secretly, we all know to be anything but hypothetical.
I can’t think of anyone else who has the liberty to even attempt something like this with major-label backing. To say that this is quite unlike Rid of Me is simple enough, but consider that, with maybe a couple of the softest possible echoes, it’s also quite unlike To Bring You My Love or Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. A couple of tracks have a sort of open-ended, riddlesome quality (and, in one case, a masterful implementation of sampling) that reminds me ever-so-slightly of Is This Desire, but the closest antecedent, naturally, is White Chalk— in the sense that it’s mostly sung by Harvey in that same banshee-like upper register, and that it’s sort of a collection of ghost stories.
I say it’s sort of a collection of ghost stories. Certainly, it’s haunted. Unholy ghosts rattle through every song here, bringing the full weight of history with them, and sometimes it’s almost sickening. You’ll hear some melodies, perhaps even recognize some lyrics that you’ve heard before. That’s because they’re little bits of folk songs, though at times they sound almost like nursery rhymes. Polly Jean is playing with form here; she’s writing brand new songs that sound as though they’ve been slowly whittled by the forces of oral tradition, passed down from mothers to their children, used to carry the seed of a nation’s greatest stories, a culture’s most important myths. Don’t be surprised when a trumpet breaks through one song to sound a call-to-arms that you’ve heard somewhere before; this is folk music re-imagined, but some of the building blocks are the same.
And it sounds like folk music, though not in a traditional sense. I can’t imagine PJ Harvey doing a straight folk album, any more than I can imagine her doing a “straight” anything (the relative mainstream appeal of Stories aside). But the sound of this thing is designed so as to evoke a certain out-of-time-quality, I think; it’s spindly, for lack of a better word, and even though it’s made with electric guitars and drumkits and horns, it feels very spare, like these are the skeletons of songs, perfect for passing down the line, and perhaps for embellishing.
But don’t mistake these for anything other than horror stories– factual though they may be. Let England Shake is an album about the forces that govern nations, about the terrible price of nationalism– about how a nation’s pride leads to bodies strewn in the alleys, soldiers cut down like lumps of meat, children orphaned and deformed. It’s an album about war, but not in a sort of moralistic, general way; the specificity of the politics here is unmistakable, and it’s ultimately less about the evils of violence broadly than it is about the twisting, corrosive force of patriotism run amok.
And so these are folk songs with a dark heart, their sing-song structure only emphasizing how deeply ingrained these terrible truths are to a nation, to a people; it’s no accident, for instance, that battle becomes all tied up with agriculture in “This Glorious Land,” as if to say that both are as primitive, as basic to human society as they could be. Nor is it any accident that the narrator of “England” says she lives and dies with England– she means it literally.
I should say that, for all its darkness, I wouldn’t call this a dispiriting album– heavy, to be sure, but also thrilling, and vital. Really, I don’t know how else to describe the dark comedy that comes at the end of “The Words That Maketh Murder” (my new favorite PJ song, I think); many other reviews have spoiled its impact, which I refuse to do, but you’ll know it when you hear it, and I think it’s quite a rush. Moreover: There’s an energy to this one, both an intellectual and a creative vigor that really galvanizes it. It isn’t a stodgy history lesson or a polemic, but a really hard-hitting record that asks a lot but pays it back amply. Polly Jean is firing on all cylinders with this one, making England one of the true dark marvels of her catalog, and a record that I feel totally comfortable saying is very unlike any other.