19 Feb Let England Shake its Booty
Polly Jean Harvey has never been an artist cautious in her approach, or particularly concerned with what her listeners might think of her sound. She’s been making her own path in the music world since her debut album, Dry for which Rolling Stone called the then-22-year-old Harvey the year’s Best Songwriter and Best New Female Singer. Raw, emotionally-bare, experimental, shocking, but always beautiful, even when the guitars are shredding and the drums are blasting like cannons. Her follow-up, Rid of Me took the back-and-forth of sober beauty and rock bombast to new heights – loud-soft-loud-soft was the sound of the 90s.
Since 1993, PJ Harvey has been recording as a solo artist (without her original trio) but often with songwriting partner, John Parrish and producer Flood. Her latest album is no exception, but instead of a recording in a studio, it was recorded live in a medieval church in Dorset, England. The location adds a haunting spaciousness to the album.
The other addition to the mix is multi-instrumentalist, Mick Harvey (no relation) a founding member of The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Crime and the City Solution and his own solo band. He has an incredible ability to play just the right sounds in just the right spots, loud or quiet. When I look through my album collection, seeing his name in the credits is almost always a guarantee of quality music. Of course, I can say the same thing about PJ Harvey, and I sometimes think of her as the female Nick Cave, another artist who can straddle genres and make timeless works that often explores the dark side of the human soul. Of course, PJ Harvey has worked with both Nick Cave and Mick Harvey numerous times before.
There’s been much spoken in the media about the themes of this album being war, inhumanity and murder, and the way they are sung about in a sometimes girlish sing-song voice with melodies and instrumentation to match. Harvey herself has said that she had done a great deal of research into war, particularly the campaign in Galipoli, but not all of the lyrics are strictly about England’s participation in global conflicts. At times the album sounds like an elegy for the entire modern world. On “The Last Living Rose,” her high, restrained voice seems to rise above the now and become timeless, almost like someone looking back at our society from a bleak and burned-out future. Many of the songs unfurl with a fiery impassioned wail from Harvey that speaks of pain and loss, and maybe thoughts of what could have been.
While many of the songs seem simple at first, they slowly reveal a depth and clarity that can only have been brought forth from an artist in complete control of her craft, having perfected it over the last 20 years. When PJ Harvey and John Parish sing the call-and-response of, “What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is England’s children” it sounds at once like a gospel chant, a lament, a nursery rhyme, and a hymn. Or maybe a workingman’s folk-song from a by-gone time.
Polly Jean Harvey has created a sad, yet beautiful album, wherein she pushes her voice bravely in a way that sounds neither false nor pretentious, even when at its emotional rawest, or at its most conceptually constrained. I was listening to the album for the third time while watching an online slideshow of the massive protests in Egypt that removed Mubarek, and it created a perfect emotional pairing that brought a bit of a tear to my eyes. Different geographical settings, but very similar emotions.