Previously renowned for her visceral brand of introspection, Polly Harvey has turned to much broader themes, delivering a searing examination of conflict and colonialism.
Let England Shake by PJ Harvey
As potential voices of the political zeitgeist go, Polly Harvey ranks as one of the more improbable. Across a 19-year career, she has earned a reputation as one of Britain's most singular songwriters, largely thanks to her gift for unflinching self-analysis: the more Harvey turned her gaze inward, the more resonant truths about the human condition she seemed to uncover. In her public life, too, despite claiming to be an avid follower of politics, she has deliberately shied away from making any statement that could be perceived as "political" in any way - particularly following a 1998 comment in vague support of foxhunting that elicited jerking knees across the British music press.
On Let England Shake, though, Harvey turns her attention to the state of her nation, past and present, observed through the prism of war. It's a striking title, an ostensibly bold imperative that dominates the album's monochrome cover - the first not to feature a picture of Harvey herself. But its connotations are contradictory and its meaning elusive: revolutionary fervour or elemental fear? Call to action or bitter apathy? This ambiguity permeates an album that deliberately avoids manifestos and sloganeering in favour of a documentary strategy that's all the more effective for its refusal to commit to an explicit political argument.
In some ways, then, Let England Shake is thoroughly in character: this is precisely how Harvey has approached her chosen themes throughout her career. On her finest album (and the one that she has declared the most pride in), Is This Desire?, she played smoke and mirrors with herself, refracting a relentless monomania through various tragic and romantic personae while leaving the album's title firmly unanswered. Conflict and violence have long been central to her work, too, with Harvey often treating sex and identity as personal war zones: the bleak wasteland of 1996's Civil War Correspondent, for example, or the fallen soldier of 2007's The Mountain.
So it is apt that Harvey's attempt to capture the experience of armed conflict has resulted in a collection of songs that, in a variety of ways, ring true. These aren't anti-war songs, though - just war songs. Some are full of visceral detail, memories of the frontline brought to gruesome life: "I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief - arms and legs were in the trees," she gasps on The Words That Maketh Murder. Upending expectations once again, she sets these words to an oddly jaunty melody, backed by merry handclaps and backing vocals, that brings to mind an antique drinking song: the kind of thing a troop of soldiers might carol while in their cups. Conversely, so gentle does Hanging In The Wire initially seem that its own grotesquerie - images of limbs caught in barbed wire - almost goes unnoticed, its stillness then betraying a state of shock.
At other times, Harvey is impressionistic and indefinite, as though taking on the perspective of the land itself. On both the title track and The Glorious Land, Harvey is both aching and ecstatic, crooning incantatory melodies that bring to mind pagan rituals, subsumed into arrangements that peal and chime like church bells across the moors of her beloved West Country. She has long sung of violence and cruelty as innate parts of the human condition.
Across Let England Shake she expands this by treating war as inextricably woven into physical geography and social fabric. Nature is as pitiless as humanity here, all jagged mountains and blood-red earth - less a backdrop, more another combatant. On Bitter Branches, muddy guitars and clattering percussion mirror the discomfort and claustrophobia of trench warfare; the "hateful feeling" that persists on an erstwhile frontline 80 years hence in On Battleship Hill is not a wound inflicted by humanity, but rather how "the land returns to how it has always been".
Harvey's strong sense of rural identity and consequent fixation with its topography has been a constant throughout her career. Even when not overt, her sense of location has underpinned much of her material. Let England Shake finds her connecting emotions inspired by physical terrain with a sense of nationhood - but, as ever, this is far from straightforward. As Harvey slips from narrator to narrator, signifiers clash and confuse each other, ornamenting her songs in thoroughly unexpected ways.
A hunting bugle ruptures the echoing reverb of The Glorious Land, as though carried on the wind. Harvey samples Jamaican reggae on Written On The Forehead (Niney the Observer's Blood & Fire) and interpolates American rock'n'roll on The Words That Maketh Murder, breaking into a sardonic chant of "What if I take my problems to the United Nations?" (a playful riff on Eddie Cochran's 1958 hit Summertime Blues). A song called simply England is the ghostliest, most tortured on the album, Harvey singing as though the words are being dragged from her, backed by sparse, industrial clanks and a discordant Kurdish folk sample.
Harvey's opacity allows her to convey the kind of half-feelings that can be sensed, but rarely expressed. It also makes her specific references all the more telling. Every song but one on Let England Shake contains geographical details that situate the narrative at, or close to, the Battle of Gallipoli.
Even within the context of the First Word War, a conflict in which millions of lives were sacrificed on the altar of colonial expansionism, this fiasco of a campaign has come to represent the failure of governmental authority and the immorality of a situation where politicians could sacrifice a generation of young men like so many chess pieces.
Harvey brings the stories of these ordinary soldiers to life: camaraderie in The Colour Of The Earth, coping mechanisms in The Words That Maketh Murder, the homesick trudge of The Last Living Rose, the stateliness of All And Everyone. These are set to dreamy, often gentle melodies and loose, casual arrangements that seem at odds with the blood-and-guts catharsis for which Harvey used to be known. They are no less affecting for it; and despite this essential humanity - and the scent of thyme, symbolising courage, that wafts through On Battleship Hill - there is no escaping an overwhelming sense of futility. It's an aesthetic reminiscent of the First World War painter Paul Nash, who also drew inspiration from the English landscape and whose blend of beauty and brutality resulted in equally singular art.
The one song set elsewhere is Written On The Forehead. Amid references to electricity generators and against a backdrop of a "foetid river" and "a trench of burning oil", Harvey calmly depicts a scene of ruined civilian lives in war-torn Iraq, singing in her highest register, as if in a daze. The link she makes between this modern-day conflict and a historical war motivated by colonialism is hard to miss and makes complete sense of her deployment of the Rastafarian anthem Blood & Fire.
As with Harvey's First World War troops, the dominant emotion is powerlessness and anger against a system in which ordinary lives can be so easily broken or ended in the pursuit of power and wealth. Harvey sings of her home country with equal measures of love and disgust, yearning and bitterness, tangling these emotions up so thoroughly that they seem like the same thing. Maybe, she seems to suggest, this is what patriotism really is.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian and New Statesman.