Let England Shake
PJ Harvey, Island Records, available now
When personal reserves run dry, fiction writers often turn to history for inspiration. But songwriters, afraid to quit the comfort of their own experience, tend to dry up. For the past two decades, Polly Jean Harvey has beaten and soared her way through seven albums of first-person narratives, from the excoriating furies of the million-selling To Bring You My Love, to the fragile, folksy solipsism of her last solo record, White Chalk. Wilfully mercurial, her exploration of style, instrumentation and kooky wardrobe changes have been less about reinvention than evolution.
In this latest work, however, Harvey has reached beyond her self into the distant tragedies of English warmongering. Invoking the soldierly spirits of Gallipoli, we are drawn dreamlike into a fading but no less shameful history of slaughter and attrition. Images of burning oil and “date palms and oranges” evoke the guilt of more recent catastrophes in the middle east, but it is the gentle insistence of Harvey’s voice, the melancholy wash of the stringed instruments reverberating from the Victorian walls of the Dorset church in which they were recorded, which give the music its undeniable beauty. Let England Shake is not political protest, but Harvey has drawn on our belligerent past to pose uncomfortable questions of the present.