In Neil Gaiman’s epic graphic novel, “Sandman", there exists a library that contains all the books never written. Dusty shelves filled with all the great literature that never was. I often think about this when listening to PJ Harvey. There’s a PJ Harvey album that I crave, but will never get from her. She is a superb songwriter by any reasonable measure. She’s thoroughly capable of crafting sublime pop music for the masses. She hints at it all the time (see the utterly gorgeous “The Last Living Rose”).
She has an inner Gaga, but I doubt we will ever see it, because her inner Artiste is just too big, all-consuming and protective. Perhaps it’s for the best. Instead of a platter of pure rock candy confection, she unleashes “LET ENGLAND SHAKE”. It’s far more challenging. The masses will ignore it, and we elite music snobs get to keep PJ as our own little secret. Don’t ever let the Grammy Committee find out about her, please.
I’ve been tough on Polly over the course of her last few albums. She’s better than “WHITE CHALK” and she knows it. Sometimes geniuses have to purge themselves. Sometimes David Bowie and Lou Reed have to wallow in Berlin. So let’s not call this a comeback, or a return to form. She never “lost her way”. Polly Jean Harvey travels different roads than most. You may read about this album being a bitter love letter to England, or a reflection on her native countries involvement in the First World War. Before you start rolling your eyes, let me assure you it’s not nearly as pretentious as all that. Polly Jean has never been interested in being Bono. Besides, after constantly listening to “LET ENGLAND SHAKE” over the past few days, I don’t really hear the album that way. Those topics may have been a jumping off point, but where she lands is someplace else. Some place out of time.
These songs sound like nothing else in PJ’s canon. There isn’t a single blistering guitar riff to be found. Not one tortured love song. The lyrics are brutal, but the music gentle and oddly comforting. The songs are peppered with strange sounds. She and John Parish are playing with what kind of textures might be wrung out of xylophones, trombones, and zithers. The layered vocal chorus at the end of “The Glorious Land” is disturbingly beautiful. How can you make a call and response line like “its fruit is deformed children” sound…um, pretty?!
Her knowing wink to Eddie Cochran at the close of “The Words That Maketh Murder” is fun, sure, but also dark and heavy with intent. This is perhaps PJ Harvey’s most Gothic record. It’s a story of doom told through 40 minutes of sparkling musical ripples. You will be dragged along by the throat in its undercurrent, but oh, what a ride! It’s a beast of a record that shows a new face every time you listen to it. She continues to amaze me.
No, this isn’t the Polly Jean Harvey album of my dreams. I could never have anticipated this, but I’m very happy it’s here.
-Keith (aka KrossD)