Polly Jean Warms Up (A Bit)
P. J. Harvey
Let England Shake
You never know what to expect with Polly Jean Harvey, who seems to have reinvented herself more times than Cher and Madonna combined. One thing you can always count on, however, is a bit of gloom and darkness. And some killer beats.
On her new album, Let England Shake, Harvey touches on themes of politics and war in her beloved home country of England. Collaborating with Mick Harvey (unrelated) and longtime musical and production partner John Parish, whom Harvey has played with since 1987 and calls her “musical soul mate,” she has produced a fantastic collection of genre-defying tunes.
In sharp contrast to her last album, 2007’s White Chalk, the songs on this new collection feel much less sparse and barren—I dare say they even seem warm. For the first time since she was in her teens, Harvey plays saxophone on a handful of songs, including a mellow tune called “Last Living Rose,” and the brassy sax makes the track feel more intimate than any other P. J. song I’ve ever heard. The melodies and phrasing are so pleasant you might not even notice the bleak lyrics that reveal her mixed feelings for her home country of England. While one moment she’s asking the listener to “take me back to beautiful England,” she quickly adds “and the grey damp filthiness of ages.” Later, she ratchets the grimness up another notch: “Let me walk through the stinking alleys/To the music of drunken beatings.”
What really seems to worry P. J. is how complacent others are about what she sees as the destruction of her homeland, but she seems more sad than angry. In the title track, she sings, “I fear our blood won’t rise again,” and expresses her fear that “indifference” will win. Then again, her often little-girlish, Joanna Newsom–like voice can distract from the lyric content at times—just another element to her multi-faceted music. “The words were doing so much already,” Harvey commented in a recent interview with the Onion’s A.V. Club, “so the music had to bring an energy and a lightness to the words in order for them to be heard, really, without getting too weighted down.”
The music gets much darker, though, as Harvey moves into discussions of war. “The Words that Maketh Murder” describes a first-person recollection of being out on a battlefield. “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget,” the song begins, chillingly. She continues, “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat / Blown and shot out beyond belief / Arms and legs were in the trees.” Despite the graphic lyric content, the music is upbeat, even jaunty at times, like a musical number in a Tim Burton film. With almost comical-sounding hand claps, sax, and vocal harmonies from John Parish and Mick Harvey, the song achieves the balance Harvey claims to be striving for, the musical accompaniment tempering her sometimes heavy-handed lyrics.
Though there are more soothing songs on Let England Shake than usual for Harvey, the album has its share of jarring moments. “The Glorious Land,” which begins simple, low, and percussion-heavy, is quickly interrupted several times with samples of the Regimental March, a sharp, patriotic, brassy pronouncement that quickly turns the song eerie and uneasy. Harvey’s music always manages to keep listeners squirming on the edge of their seats.
Still, despite its uneasy moments, Let England Shake is, overall, a supremely enjoyable album. Lyrically, Harvey couldn’t have been stronger. Vocally, she ranges from sweet and sad in “Written on the Forehead,” to upper-register and angelic on “On Battleship Hill,” to angry and rocking on “Bitter Branches.” Musically, she explores countless sounds and textures in ways that just work.
Though P. J. Harvey changes up her style—musically, lyrically, and even with her clothing/image choices—every few years, she can’t be accused of doing it just for the sake of being different. She clearly has a wide variety of interests and ideas she’s eager to explore and articulate through her music. Despite the gloominess that often permeates her songs, there is still such a great sense of enthusiasm, love, and life to her records that, in the end, always overrides every last bit of gloom.