Tomorrow, finally, I get around to talking about the new PJ Harvey album, I Inside The Old Year Dying – I can recommend it: the album and the review.
But ahead of that turn it wouldn’t hurt to skip back 12 years to a record that in some ways, with its folk base and exploratory language prepares the way for the new one. (And in other ways, exists wholly separate from all she did before, and since – because that’s the PJ way.)
Let England Shake (Universal)
Blood and bone and bruises have always been the essence of Polly Jean Harvey’s albums, in any style from harsh blues-based material to the spectral, Poe-on-piano she showed on her last solo work, 2007’s White Chalk. Those elements are all here on the astonishing Let England Shake, a folk album in all but name, whose subject matter, its heartbeat, is the same as any songs in the folkloric tradition: the people, the land and the lives lived, observed at close quarters.
It’s not usual territory for Harvey, whose work has almost always been internalised and personalised but a song cycle about not just her home but its place in history lacks for nothing in directness and thought as Harvey’s view is as conflicted as it is pungent.
As she says in England, “I live and die through England” so that even as she talks of a “withered vine/a bitter one/reaching from the nation’s dirt” there is recognition that “undaunted, never failing love for you England/Is all to which I cling”.
But it is a nation capable of great insecurity and immaturity ("God damn Europeans/take me back to England ..... let me walk through the stinking alleys/to the music of drunken beatings") which in this telling has been built on blood sacrifice.
So, war is everywhere and there are several references to the battles in the Dardenelles, including the richly detailed All And Everyone, set amid the battle for Bolton’s Ridge. But other times she easily could be singing of Helmand province or southern Iraq as in Written On The Forehead where a soldier observes a crumbling city normally of “date palms, orange and tangerine trees” since beset by battle so that now “people throw belongings/a life time’s earnings/amongst the scattered rubbish and suitcases on the sidewalk”.
As a war-making/war-fighting nation, England necessarily is a nation living with the damaged humanity who come home from these wars. The outwardly jaunty Words That Maketh Murder cuts into your flesh, its tale told through the eyes of a veteran of the trenches, a man who has "seen and done things I want to forget" such as the soldiers who "fell like lumps of meat/blown and shot out beyond belief/arms and legs were in the trees"
While the music reflects the national diversity, from autoharp and martial drums to coal town brass and samples of reggae and Arabic sounds, it is what Harvey does with her voice which completes the job.
That high, airy, not-of-our-times turn which was so startling on White Chalk, appears throughout Let England Shake so that in On Battleship Hill she is almost some wraith snaking through the tops of the trees. But then in England that voice scrapes at the surface; in Hanging In The Wire it’s delicate and lost; and in the title track she could be a sinister child.
“There are no birds singing The White Cliffs of Dover”. Quite. What a complex, provocative and complete work this album is.