Patti Smith said recently that PJ Harvey’s first single ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, from her new album Let England Shake “a great song. It just makes me happy to exist.” Such an accolade does not surprise me. In her time, Polly Jean Harvey has been furious, sweet, reflective, misunderstood, in tune and not in tune with the modern world, in the same way that Patti Smith has always been, creating her own reality around herself. This new album is so different from anything she has done before, as is the case with every album she releases. It is a collection of songs on the subject of England and war. It is by turns scary, jolly, mystical, proud and nostalgic. In her recent and rare interview with Steve Lamacq on Radio 6 she said she writes every day, did lots of research for this album and has not, until now, felt the confidence to write such a ‘political’ album.
One of the first songs on this collection is ‘The Last Living Rose’, with quiet horns and lyrics like “battered books and fog rolling down behind the mountains on the graveyards of dead sea captains..”. Perfectly put together and a beautifully paced hymn to England. It then moves swiftly on to ‘The Glorious Land’ with its fox hunting trumpets which makes you feel so British it hurts a little. The single, ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ has already achieved so much acclaim it seems slightly redundant to tell you about it here…suffice to say I have been walking around singing “What if I take my problems to the united nations?” INCESSANTLY since I first heard it. Even though it’s a song about the horrors of war, it is ironically bouncy, catchy and upbeat, to a degree I haven’t heard in Polly’s work for a long, long time.
The deep, powerful, sad and slow ‘All & Everyone’ packs a punch to the gut, while the spooky ‘On Battleship Hill’ with it’s shivering strings, swooping vocals and insistent beat could have been written by Kate Bush. The oddness of the next track, ‘England’ is that Polly sings in her more guttural voice, catching and breaking on her lyrics, whereas on the other tracks her voice is much smoother. This is the most heartfelt of all the songs…“this country that I love, England”, and it truly is a love song. In ‘The Dark Places’ is much more the PJ Harvey we have heard before, and even though it is perhaps the least interesting track on the album it still deserves a space here for its passionate vocals.
One of my favourite tracks ‘Bitter Branches’ punches above its weight with great syncopated guitar and drums, and PJ wailing over the top; it’s traditional but also modern simultaneously, feeling full of energy and vigour. ‘Hanging In The Wire’ is peaceful and quiet, reminding me of Elbow at times with it’s piano tune. Perhaps the most unexpected song is ‘Written On The Forehead’, which features rhythm and a sample from an old reggae track…it just works with the song, and I think this shows her ability to make her own reality within her music, by just using what works, rather than worrying about her style or what has gone before.
The final track ‘The Colour Of The Earth’ is about a friend dying in war, and is a duet with Mick Harvey, a long time collaborator with her old flame Nick Cave. With its yearning harmonies and ‘last post’ feel, it is a suitable ending to this amazing album. PJ Harvey, like Damon Albarn and Radiohead (in my opinion) strive so blinking hard to create new worlds in music, and to actually say something, that it makes me, like Patti Smith, glad to be alive. Good work Peej.
From Lizz Page.