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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

"A broken Britannia for a broken Britain." PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

For Polly Harvey, creation and reaction have long been interwoven. From the swampy reptilian longing of To Bring You My Love and into the febrile solitary confinement chronicled on 1998’s Is This Desire? Then to her nearest brush with the mainstream with the layered FM swagger of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. On September 11, 2001, she won a Mercury for that – although at her Washington hotel, a stone’s throw away from a burning Pentagon, celebration was the last thing on Harvey’s mind. In any case, prize or no prize, she was swift to disown that one too. Don Van Vliet – voice of Captain Beefheart, and favourite singer of Harvey’s stonemason father – had become one of four people to whom Harvey sends her records when she has finished them. Van Vliet didn’t like Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, but he loved its 2004 successor, Uh Huh Her, a record which, at its outermost extremes – Cat On The Wall and Who The Fuck? – sounded like an act of wilful hostility. Lest some of us at the back hadn’t been paying attention, an interview with Barney Hoskyns that same year saw Harvey reiterate, “My ground line when I’m beginning to write a new record is: how far can I get away from the last thing I did?”

Nevertheless, when Harvey reappeared in 2007, with the release of White Chalk, the change seemed to come from a different place altogether. Playing songs from that album in Bristol on the day of its release, Harvey seemed to have discovered a hitherto unheard voice – a high, tremulous thing, perfectly suited to the ornate, mildewed desolation of new songs such as Grow Grow Grow and Silence. Having grown up listening to predominantly American music, it was as though, finally, the West Country scenery of Harvey’s upbringing had finally overpowered her. Perhaps the moment that most strongly symbolized that shift came when she played 1995’s Down By The Water. Played not on guitar but autoharp, the bluesiest standout from To Bring You My Love suddenly sounded like an English folk song of unearthly purity: more Shirley Collins than Albert Collins.

Four years have elapsed since an album of Harvey-penned melodies (she merely provided lyrics on A Woman A Man Walked By her 2009 co-header with John Parish). Appearing on The Andrew Marr Show last May, a confident-looking Harvey affirmed that England was continuing to exert its influence on her writing. This time, however, came yet another break with the old way. For the first time, her new songs were directing the lyrical anglepoise outwards, away from the make-ups, break-ups and losses seemingly chronicled on her previous records. She told a surprised Marr that she took a close interest in politics and that the music she was now making was formed out of “the history of this nation.” By way of illustration, she took her autoharp to a corner of the studio and – sang what we now know to be the title track of her eighth album. “Let England shake,” she sang, “Weighted down with silent dead/I fear our blood won’t rise again.”

Augmented on every song by Parish and sometime Bad Seed Mick Harvey, Let England Shake is an album indelibly coloured by ambivalence towards that very landscape and everything it stands for. “Goddam’ Europeans!/Take me back to England,” begins The Last Living Rose. The singer’s damp, clomping hymn to a Blighty of “fog rolling down behind the mountains/and on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains” isn’t dissimilar in tone to what Peter Doherty achieved on his unjustly overlooked 2008 album Grace/Wastelands. Like Doherty too, the psychogeography of Harvey’s newest songs seems to have been formed by days spent nose deep in history books. The 1915 battle for Gallipoli, which wiped out much of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps prompts no less than three songs.

To the beat of a wearied gait, All And Everyone sounds like the centerpiece of a macabre war musical. Whilst there are no real misfires on Let England Shake, it’s nonetheless overshadowed by its two companion pieces here. “The scent of thyme carried on the wind/Stings your face into remembering/That nature has won again,” sings Harvey over the muted, mournful gallop of On Battleship Hill. Mirrored on vocals by drummer and longtime associate Jean-Marc Butty, her tone of calcified sadness could be that of an aged war widow visiting the scene of her husband’s demise, caught between the beauty of the land and the horrors that once took place there. On the The Colour of the Earth, Butty gives voice to a former soldier recalling the moment his best friend ran forward from the Anzac trench, never to be seen again.

The imagery of the battlefield isn’t restricted to these songs either. In The Glorious Land, she describes a country “ploughed by tanks and feet marching.” Here and on The Words That Maketh Murder, you’re left with an inescapable sense that Harvey set out to write a cache of nursery rhymes as discombobulating in its way as that pre-school plague perennial Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses. Her success is measurable by the proliferation of songs that scratch away at your subconscious from their very first airing. To those already mentioned you can add Written On The Forehead – whose images of civil insurrection dovetail neatly into a sample of Niney The Observer’s conscious reggae anthem Blood & Fire – and, of course, that aforesaid title track. On The Andrew Marr Show, Harvey performed it over a jarringly sinister loop of Istanbul (Not Constantinople). On the album, the sample has been supplanted by the same notes picked out by Parish on a xylophone. “England’s dancing days are gone,” sings Harvey over a bleached out production that makes you think of post-war Super 8 footage shot in blazing sunshine.

Eight months since she debuted those words, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to consider what our Englishness amounts to. We’ve had Dizzee Rascal and James Corden’s Sun-sponsored World Cup song Shout For England challenging all-comers to “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough”. In Harvey’s hometown of Yeovil, the monument honouring local soldiers who had died in armed combat since the First World War saw its stone column sent crashing to the ground by local youths. We’ve had ministers from the new coalition Government shifting uncomfortably on their Commons benches whilst voices outside echoed their broken promises back at them. We’ve seen deadlines set for our withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, with no clear indication of what we meaningfully achieved there in the first place.

Of course, as she applied the finishing touches to these songs, Harvey couldn’t have known the degree to which England would start to shake by the end of 2010. Nevertheless, there are moments here where it’s hard not to feel that you’re listening to an uncannily timely piece of work. “I live and die through England,” she sings on England. A wordless harmony, almost North African in tone, does nothing to detract from the enveloping spell of this post-Empire lament. “I have searched for your springs,” she continues, “But people stagnate with time/Like water or air/Undaunted, never failing love for you, England/Is all, to which I cling.” Of all her many guises – doomed blues siren; righteous rock vixen, tormented Victorian ghost – this may be her most powerful to date. A broken Britannia for a broken Britain. It turns out that, more than ever, Polly Harvey was made for these times.

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