Hear ye, hear ye, hold thy tongues whilst I speak (er, write). Thee Polly Jean Harvey has just released her latest opus, the sublimely titled “Let England Shake”. Her record of duets with John Parish nonwithstanding, this marks her ninth full length and first official “solo” album since 2007’s “White Chalk”. Of course none of her records are truly solo efforts given the number of people involved behind the scenes that make up backing musicians, which includes yet again Parish, along with Mick Harvey and producer Flood. Last time around PJ Harvey pulled her biggest 180 after what seemed like a career of 180s when she set down her guitar and much of the bluesy style of older recordings and chose to deal almost exclusively with the piano and the autoharp. “White Chalk” was a record of loneliness and desperation, of a woman so far separated from almost everyone else that she’s not even sure who she is anymore. Even the vocals weren’t her normal lower register growl, opting instead for some lilting, high-pitched “experiment” that left many fans more upset than the actual absence of guitars or any mood above what most might consider to be hideously depressed. In that respect, such a record could also be called very “English” in nature – in particular if you know just how completely unhappy many of the people living there can be (please note, I said MANY and not ALL before you send me an email, happy British people). Blame it on the weather, or blame it on a rich and long history of difficulties and war. Speaking of which, was is the topic PJ Harvey is stuck on for “Let England Shake”, and if you guessed that it’s not a record of stirring battle anthems you’d be spot on.
Let’s set the scene: it’s World War I and there’s been lots of battles fought and lots of people killed. The first World War was labeled The Great War not because it was great in the positive sense, but rather great as in big and horrible. From trench warfare to brutal battlefield conditions and very close range combat, it wasn’t a pleasant time for anyone. No stranger to disturbing imagery in her lyrics, PJ Harvey uses such elements as fodder on “Let England Shake”, a very fitting reminder of the terrible things our ancestors went through that’s not recognized or discussed much these days. As dark as war can get, and that’s pretty much ideal for Harvey, what pushes this record out from its deep and somber hole is actually the composition of the songs. No, Polly Jean hasn’t picked up her guitar again full time to tear things up the way she used to, but instead these are livelier compositions crafted from a very wide variety of instruments that come across as interesting and engaging if you pay just a little less attention to the words associated with them. The opening title track is a bouncy potential single that makes great use of xylophone, autoharp, piano and percussion. The familiar strums of electric guitar emerge from hibernation on “The Last Living Rose”, though the heavy bass drum and slices of saxophone throw a delightful little wrench in what would otherwise be a pretty close to normal PJ Harvey song. Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” plays a direct influence on the lyrics of “The Words That Maketh Murder”, a rather jaunty cut about the illusions that post-war diplomacy might make everything that came before it seem justified. It’s actually the schoolyard handclaps and the way that Harvey sings with almost bemused sarcasm that sells the track as one of the album’s strongest. Similarly, late album cut “Written on the Forehead” pulls bits of Niney the Observer’s “Blood and Fire” for a more atmospheric and emotional appeal that’s actually about the current turmoil in Iraq rather than WWI like most everything else.
The liberal use of autoharp and horns for “All and Everyone” feels surprisingly fitting as a memorial to fallen soldiers, to the point where it’d work exceptionally well on the soundtrack or closing credits to an epic, award-winning war film. “On Battleship Hill” is a stunningly gorgeous acoustic track with touches of piano that has Harvey stretching her voice to almost Joanna Newsom-like high pitches as she goes into vivid detail about the trenches at the title’s location, which was part of the Gallipoli campaign. In terms of a more “classic” PJ Harvey, “Bitter Branches” begins as a more folk-driven acoustic number before the electric guitar begins to flare up as the lyrics become more venomous and angry. The touches of xylophone are nice as well towards the end of the song. It’s interesting to hear John Parish’s vocal contributions to “Let England Shake”, serving as almost a casual reminder of 2009’s collaborative record with Harvey, “A Woman a Man Walked By”. He does a fair amount of backing vocals, from “The Glorious Land” to “England” to the doubled over harmonies of “Bitter Branches” and “Hanging In the Wire”. On “The Words That Maketh Murder” he very much makes his presence known, and album closer “The Colour of the Earth” gives him his own half verse before Harvey steps in and sings along with him. The difference between “Let England Shake” and “A Woman a Man Walked By” is in the details and composition of course. Parish composed all of the 2009 record, while Harvey just had to write lyrics and sing along with him. Here, Harvey is firmly at the controls both lyrically and compositionally, with Parish playing the support guy. Compared to Harvey’s past solo-in-name records though, Parish has significantly upped his presence on the new album, and the small degree of variation proves to be one of the record’s more winning and varied elements.
Far be it from me to judge, but it seems just a little bit odd that PJ Harvey decided to make a record about World War I, a conflict that happened around 50 years before she was born. Of course nobody is questioning Titus Andronicus’ motives for making the Civil War-themed “The Monitor” last year. Anybody can be a history buff, and after you’ve written upteen records and have been around for 20 years or more, whatever it takes to spark creativity, by all means use it. It turns out that for “Let England Shake”, The Great War has left Polly Jean Harvey more revitalized and better than she has been in at least 10, if not 15 years. The way she’s been able to broaden her musical palette and try new things while still maintaining a modicum of success is nothing short of impressive, and that she continues to use those accumulated tools and styles even moreso. Additionally it’s nice to hear her compose songs that have some real life and hooks to them again, in the possibility that maybe they’ll get played someplace other than through somebody’s headphones when they’re sad and lonely. World War I may not be the most pleasant topic, but Harvey has often thrived on the darker, scarier side of things anyways. This is a different sort of angle for her, and she shines because of it. A few years ago close to the release of “White Chalk” there was buzz suggesting that PJ Harvey was just going to call it quits and stop making music. Be thankful she didn’t – “Let England Shake” makes for one of the best records in her long career.