More about: PJ Harvey
Commonly referred to as a concept album, Polly Harvey’s eighth studio album stays true to the singer’s adamancy in never repeating herself. Focused on the matter of country and war, the piano balladry of previous album, White Chalk gives way to an eccentric and vehemently nervous mode of English folk and blues.
Recorded live in a 19th Century Dorset Church, the multi-instrumental and often sinewy support sounds from well-known friends and collaborators, Mick Harvey and “soul mate” John Parish, compliment Polly’s highly-registered vocals throughout, giving the record urgent yet fluid, reverberating and endlessly resonant acoustics.
With the very first words, “Let England shake/ weighed down with silent dead,” set against a cymbal laden, wind accompanied Autoharp backing; we are thrown straight into an atmospheric world of historical recollection and experience. “I was looking outwards a lot more,” Polly told the BBC’s Andrew Marr in May, last year. The result is a Harold Pinter inspired, poetic lament on all the “orphaned children” of colonisation and war, on the dispossessed of not only England, but the world.
With references to various disasters, including Constantinople, Bolton Ridge and even Galipoli, it is clear that the sense of timelessness and mystery we regularly associate Polly with, has not ceased on this album. It is a comment on history constantly repeating itself, on the inevitable conflicts- both internationally and emotionally, that don’t end with certain periods of time. This is evident, for example, in song 'Battleship Hill', where “the scent of time” is “carried on the wind,” and where the almost chant-like refrain of “cruel nature’s won again” acts as a soundtrack to the full album, and fuller world: the relationships deeply rooted within all of politics; between human beings, states, and one and one’s self.
The almost violent language of 'The Words That Murder Maketh' echoes those of a Wilfred Owen or a Thomas Hardy, and the ironic question of “what if I take my problem to the United Nations” references current, unresolved struggles. Through the raw guitar sounds, high notes and decent into spoken chorus of 'In The Dark Places', Harvey and Parish answer this very question, that “not one man has/ not one woman has/ revealed the secrets of this world.” They probably never will.
And it is this notion of exploration that attaches to the album; a degree of emotional depth and power, and that allows it to transcend a mere, socio-political analysis. Let England Shake looks not only to the world around, but simultaneously to the world within. It has a touch of that haunting innocence we so distinctly recall from White Chalk, imbued with an almost undefinable and eclectic, musical sound.
Through drawing on the environment in an intelligent and simple way, PJ Harvey has created yet another rare and unique masterpiece, proving that her constantly maturing musical journey has certainly come to fruition, on this one.
More about: PJ Harvey