Over the years, Polly Jean Harvey is an artist who has gathered lots of great press. While never gaining status of national treasure, she’s gained a loyal fan base. She’s recorded a handful of tunes I like [‘Sheela-Na-Gig’, ‘Down By The Water’ and especially ‘Henry Lee’, though the latter has almost everything to with the presence of Nick Cave], but I must confess as to never having understood the fuss. A couple of people suggested I check out her 2000 release ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’, claiming it’s smoother edges could provide an easier entry point to her music, but I found that rather dull. (A live show from the same year was enjoyable, but again, didn’t set my world alight).
Her eighth studio disc ‘Let England Shake’ is anything but dull. But sadly, it’s not particularly accessible either, though I suspect that Harvey has no interest in drawing in new listeners with this release. Accompanied by long time collaborators John Parish and ex-Birthday Party man Mick Harvey (no relation), PJ offers the listener twelve tunes of relative uneasy listening; twelve songs mainly concerned with England, her decline and the effects of war.
Sometimes these feelings are more forthright than others, rarely more so than on the title cut where a soldier is called to “pack up [his] troubles and head for the fountain of death”. The hard-hitting lyrics are given a musical arrangement which at times can appear almost as relentless; angry without resorting to heaviness. With almost carny-like percussion, it has a fairly original sound. It’s a shame that she approaches the number sounding like a second rate Siouxsie Sioux. ‘The Last Living Rose’, musically, is one of the album’s most accessible numbers, with fantastic bass work and baritone saxes. Overlaid by a clanging autoharp and live sounding drums, this provides a great base for one of PJ’s more restrained vocals.
While at first, the rumbling bass and jangly guitars give the impression that ‘The Glorious Land’ is going to be just as accessible, it’s quickly punctuated by a trumpet reveille, which appears at random intervals, caring not to fit in with the music. The unsettling nature of the arrangement is matched only by Harvey’s anger and her lyrics, which here, bare a frightening set of teeth – especially as she states that our country is ploughed by tanks and marching feet and bares the fruit of orphaned children. Similarly off kilter is ‘Written On The Forehead’s reggae backdrop, which appears very much at odds with the track’s electronic treatments and Harvey’s gentle vocal.
For ‘England’ PJ squawks about her never-ending love for Blighty in a particularly off-key manner, set against stark acoustic backing. As the track progresses, the acoustic guitar is met by a mesh of other noise and backwards tapes – none of which are used in a manner which makes Harvey’s vocal delivery any more palatable. For all but the most tolerant PJ Harvey fan, this represents the best point on the album to leave the room and go and make a very British cup of Rosie Lee. ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ employs a drum pattern which hints at tribalism, but set against a reverbed, old school guitar end up having more of a retro rock ‘n’ roll feel. The baritone sax makes a welcome return but is underused. Backing vocals from Squire and Harvey mesh with PJ’s lead, resulting in something very effective. With another political message and each band member given plenty of breathing space, this is undoubtedly the album’s best number – and certainly one of it’s most accessible. A tale of trenches, ‘Battleship Hill’ captures PJ’s voice at its purest, as she hits long, clear notes without resorting to shrieking or somehow being difficult. Backed with retro sounding guitars, an understated male baking vocal and piano, it’s the closest ‘Let England Shakes’ gets to something beautiful.
‘The Colour of The Earth’ is a plodding number which sees John Parish step up for a co-lead vocal. His tone has elements of a weary English folkie, but his slightly drawly delivery makes the already simplistic arrangement drag its heels even more. In harmony with PJ’s lighter tone (which here makes no attempt to unnerve) it sounds pleasant enough. It’s possible something relatively ordinary was placed at the album’s close in an attempt to wind things down from the preceding anger and intensity, but such an uninteresting arrangement makes for a bit of an anti-climax.
Lyrically, most of ‘Let England Shake’ is striking, but often the references are so linear – but even so, it could be the most vital release of Harvey’s career. It’s the work of an angry forty-something who wishes to share her grievances and attempt to address important issues. While the sharp edges are necessary here, Harvey’s shrill and often quirky vocal style can be difficult to listen to and at times this gets in the way of the album’s politics. PJ Harvey is undoubtedly preaching to the converted though – and her many fans will take the stark messages of ‘Let England Shake’ to their collective hearts.