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PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake was recorded in a 19th Century church in Dorset, on a clifftop overlooking the sea. It was created with a cast of musicians including such long-standing allies as Flood, John Parish, and Mick Harvey. It is the eighth PJ Harvey album, following 2007’s acclaimed White Chalk, and the Harvey/Parish collaboration A Woman A Man Walked By. Let England Shake evokes the troubled spirit of 2010, but it also casts its mind back to times and places from our long collective memory. In keeping with such imaginative intentions, its music has a rare breadth and emotional power. Nearly two decades after she made her first records, it proves that not just that its author refuses to stand still, but that her creative confidence may well be at an all-time high. It is safe to say that you will not have heard anything like it before.
10 years after her album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea scooped the Mercury Music Prize, PJ Harvey became the first artist to win it twice when Let England Shake was also awarded the prestigious prize in 2011.
The title of Polly Harvey’s seventh album, 2007’s White Chalk, seemed to address England’s psycho-geography by way of Dover’s iconic coastline. Perhaps that’s projection. But her eighth most definitely does. It’s a concept album, folks. Songtitles include The Last Living Rose, England and The Glorious Land, with a distinct whiff of landscape and legend. A fragile Hanging in the Wire even namechecks "the white hills of Dover". Pete Doherty doesn’t have a copyright on singing about Albion, you know.
Going by her latest photos, Harvey’s position as the alternative Lady Gaga, confounding expectations and changing hair styles at each turn, remains undiminished. This time, the black gown and headpiece screams Hel, the Norse God of the dead. And when you read the lyric sheet, death fair stares you in the face. Its first words are "Let England shake / Weighed down with silent dead"; The Last Living Rose sings of "the grey damp filthiness of ages," and it turns out "the glorious fruit of our land" is "orphaned children". Add various references – Battleship Hill, Bolton Ridge, the Anzac trench – to the disastrous Allied invasion of Galipoli, Turkey in World War One and we appear to have a psycho-geographic lament around the perils of colonialism and the ravages of war that resonate right up to the present.
As a backdrop to this brutal battlefield, Harvey has shifted from White Chalk’s gaunt piano ballads to a broader sound that is no less feverish and close to the bone. Imagine a minimalist take on her debut album Dry’s folk-blues tilt, all urgent and wiry rhythm. It’s recorded mostly live with multi-instrumental support from the long-serving John Parrish and (former Bad Seed) Mick Harvey. But there are subtle additions; the signature horse’n’ hounds bugle leading the hunt is woven into a shifty The Glorious Land, the Bulgarian women’s choral wail (shouldn’t that be Turkish?) on the otherwise skeletal England. There is a playful reference to Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues via "what if I take my troubles to the United Nations?" into a skiffle-shaped The Words That Maketh Murder; but this is categorically a sad, despairing album. It ends with The Colour of the Earth, where a host of male voices (including the band) and Polly recall a soldier cut down in action and now "nothing but a pile of bones".
Ah, Earth, so much to answer for. But thankfully we have PJ with another fearsomely creative, emotional record to lead the resistance. God bless unique, unfathomable, great Queen Polly.
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