It seems rare that an album would inspire the listener to spend time, during the less compelling tracks, idly Googling contextual information about World War I trench warfare and the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, in which thousands upon thousands of men died over a months-long, epically failed invasion of a few square miles of Ottoman peninsula. Rare outside of heavy-metal albums, anyway. But here you have it: Polly Jean Harvey’s latest LP does precisely that, and I fully intend to bore someone, sometime, with every last grim thing I just learned about death, dysentery, great black clouds of flies that never let you sleep, and soldiers breaking their teeth on old biscuits.
Try and track down how such an album came to be, and it begins to look like Harvey—an alternately primal and poetic British songwriter—might have spent a few months thinking about the same things as Britain’s actual poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. In the spring of 2009, Duffy gave the public a poem called “Last Post,” commemorating the deaths of the nation’s last few surviving World War I veterans, which borrows a few well-known lines from the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen. Around the same time, on the back half of an album she’d made with longtime collaborator John Parish, Harvey was singing about being a soldier, then echoing a line of World War II poetry from W. H. Auden. (“We must love one another or die,” he wrote—though she sings, ominously, “or accept the consequences.”) Duffy went on to ask her peers for more poetry about modern war, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harvey went on to wonder why, if there could be more than a century’s worth of “war poets,” there mightn’t be a war songwriter.
Thus we get Let England Shake, on which she becomes one, and makes a captivatingly tricky job of it. The music here isn’t quite what you’d expect. The arrangements feel wobbly and unstable, as if they were looking at folk music through a fish-eye lens. Songs are haunted by off-key bugling, or oddly chosen samples; Harvey mostly plays autoharp, an instrument with a thin, watery sound. The best tracks sound both jaunty and spooky, like clap-along campfire songs for very strange children—eerie English folk marching tunes about war and nation and death. There’s something grave and unguessable and dangerously spry about them; you could dance to a few, but only in a really ambivalent way; and all of that is exactly as it should be.
A quick potted history of PJ Harvey might help explain things. Her music, over nearly twenty years of rock-critic gushing, has been described in many ways—it’s been explosive, imposing, mysterious, tightly controlled, alien, spellbinding, even “irrational”—but the line connecting most of the critiques is the sense that she’s aloof from us, a little unknowable. The word reptilian crops up often, too, and while that’s mostly about the scaly, slinking quality of her guitar playing, you can’t help but remember that humans and reptiles don’t have much intuitive understanding of one another.
That quality is, naturally, part of the appeal. There are musicians we relate to because we think they’re like us, and there are musicians we watch with jaws dropped, wishing we could maybe figure out how to be vaguely like them in a dream someday. Harvey’s closer to the latter. Her first few records were studies in aggressive aloofness: seething, sexually complicated, rattlesnake rock in which this woman, all red mouth and black boots, seemed to be staring people down, taunting them, and then sending them packing. The music was heavy and the lyrics were frank, full of body parts.
It’s in the career that’s rambled out of that—including music that’s less vicious and more bewitching—that allegations of aloofness have become an issue. Some of Harvey’s songs can slip mysteriously past you, as if she were conducting a private ritual that doesn’t require your understanding. Her last solo album, 2007’s White Chalk, ditched guitars in favor of bare-bones piano; amazingly enough, it managed to strike some listeners as full of harrowing raw emotion (one song seemed to be about the experience of having an abortion) and others as closed-off, uncommunicative, or mannered. It all seems to depend on how closely you think you should be required to pore over the stuff—and whether you think heaviness, fire, blood, and guts are physical things about the way music moves, or whether you locate them on some other, more abstract level.
The blood and guts on Let England Shake mostly belong to soldiers; they get splattered around several fronts, but not in the form of heavy music. One of the great things about this album is that its subject matter—a nation, its land, its people, its folk traditions, and its wars, from 1914 straight through tomorrow morning in Iraq—rewards a little mystery. Harvey wrote the lyrics first, then complicated things with her singing. She conjures images of battlefields and violent death and love of country, but it’s wonderfully hard to tell whom she’s speaking for, and when, and where she’s being angry, or sardonic, or just baffled. The cheeriest song here is “The Last Living Rose,” and it sounds like a homecoming soldier’s paean to a damp, drunk, violent England; it also feels awfully fond. (On this album, England is pronounced nostalgically, with three syllables and a phantom r: “En-gerland.”) Another tune uses a folk-song call-and-response to ask what the glorious nation’s soil is plowed with (tanks and marching feet!) and what fruit it bears (orphaned children!)—but the next one ends with her asking, in a wry American rock-and-roll voice, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”
You hesitate to call that arch. It might also be tacky to call it playful—the song is, after all, titled “The Words That Maketh Murder,” and it contains images of blown-up soldiers’ limbs hanging from the branches of trees. There’s nothing funny here to call gallows humor. But Harvey’s approach to a subject so large might actually be a fitting case of, say, “gallows ambiguity”: a light touch that leaves things with exactly the right amount of weird opacity and mixed feelings. That murder tune is actually something you can shimmy and twist to, and if there’s not a kind of mordant wit to that, then I don’t know what to say.