By J Howell
If there’s one thing that can be said about Polly Harvey, it’s that she is full of surprises.
While a detailed discussion of the breadth of Harvey’s compelling body of work is beyond the scope of this review, it’s fair to say that while her music has always been inhabited by an often harrowing multitude of characters, the protagonists are generally embattled on an intensely intimate level. Just as often those same characters could arguably be described as victims.
While Let England Shake is, as Harvey albums always are, a deeply personal record, it can easily be construed (by what she herself calls “lazy journalists”) as her first overtly political record. Let England Shake isn’t that simple, but it is brilliant. So brilliant that, in fact, just hours after its official release in the UK (and just a couple of hours ago as of this writing), Harvey has apparently been offered a position by the Imperial War Museum as “official war song correspondent.”
While Harvey often says that she tries to avoid repeating herself, songs inhabited by war-scarred protagonists do have precedence in her work: “Civil War Correspondent” from Dance Hall At Louse Point; her sublime cover of Kurt Weill’s “Soldier’s Wife” from the September Songs compilation; and “The Soldier” from 2009’s A Woman A Man Walked By. Clearly, the notion of the emotional effect of witnessing horror on the battlefield has crossed Polly Harvey’s mind before.
Let England Shake further explores this theme, and does so in a disturbingly brutal, real, human way. To say that Harvey, as a writer, has come a long way since “Sheela-Na-Gig” is a bit obvious, but it bears repeating that she has grown immensely from a powerful voice to a seasoned master, and any of the songs here could easily function just as well as written word without music.
Much of Let England Shake visits (and revisits later) the scene of some of the most horrific fighting of World War I, and overt references to the Gallipoli campaign in particular surface in four of the twelve songs. The closing, “The Colour Of The Earth” (mostly sung by sometime collaborator and former Bad Seed Mick Harvey), sounds almost like a World War I-era folk song and is a particularly heartbreaking remembrance of an ANZAC comrade fallen in No Man’s Land and left, by necessity, for dead. While the WW I references are a recurring thread here, there are other songs that visit the scenes of war and destruction elsewhere, such as Iraq in “Written On The Forehead,” or conceivably almost anywhere else in “Bitter Branches.”
Mostly though, Let England Shake inhabits the psychological effects of living in and with a post-Imperial England on the characters from whose perspective Harvey sings, whether in the trenches of nearly a century ago, watching the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfold today, or just “walking through stinking alleys to the music of drunken beatings.” Even the black mass of gulls that comprise the cover art resemble the swarms of starlings on the Brighton Pier so vividly that it’s difficult to separate the record as a whole from its inherent Englishness. Of course, Harvey is one of the finest songwriters of our time, and even listeners who aren’t English or know little about English history of the last century or so will have no trouble connecting to Harvey’s songs instinctively.
While it may be difficult for some listeners to accept that Polly Harvey left behind the 22-year-old who wrote “50 Foot Queenie” long ago, for listeners willing to follow where Harvey leads, Let England Shake is another step in the development of an artist whose growth has been exhilarating. Let England Shake is not only a truly great record, it’s easily as strong or stronger than any of Harvey’s prior work, and will likely stand the test of time as one of the finest, perhaps even one of the most important, records of the early twenty-first century.