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Album review: PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake'

February 14, 2011 |  6:21 pm

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Most supernatural tales are marked by that moment when a double walks in — a longed-for loved one, usually, whose presence makes our terrified heroine relax for a beat, but then recoil in horror at this stranger in familiar skin. The doubles may be demons or revenants, or humans driven so utterly out of their minds that they can no longer recognize themselves. In the scariest instances, the double is the self: Natalie Portman facing the dance-studio mirror in “Black Swan,” watching her own face go dark and her limbs grotesquely twist.

Doubling deepens horror stories by forcing us to confront the ways we ourselves are cracked: the inching decay of every human body, the lunatic edge in every human mind. Rock-era pop music also taps into this force, though more triumphantly. Unleashing both the sexuality and the ugliness others repress, rock stars double themselves as heroes, not demons: human, but wilder and freer. Only occasionally does a rock artist make that uncanny transformation the very essence of her work, revealing its process, confronting its consequences.

Polly Jean Harvey is rock’s master polymorph. For 20 years she has pulled herself through the ectoplasmic core of whatever musical style currently fascinates her — blues, post-punk, gothic rock, Victorian piano ballads — to show us how music can reshape the person performing it. Her lyrics, too, often dwell on violent acts of self-uncovering. Imagining herself as a man, a mother, a gargoyle or a ghost, lining up those identities within the singing and other sounds that best fit them, Harvey has created a body of work that serves as a resonant hall of mirrors, where listeners can go to explore the way music, and life itself, dissembles and renews them.

Harvey’s eighth studio album, “Let England Shake,” transforms her and her music in a groundbreaking way. On this album, which explores how nationalism both binds us and blows us apart, Harvey becomes a “we.” Love of country is her subject; the muddy fields where nations baptize themselves in blood are, mostly, her settings. And the music, at its core, is patriotic folk — some the battle cries sung in pubs or as soldiers plod forward; others the sentimental ballads shared by those left behind to record loss and justify its cost.

“I wanted the music to have an energy and sense of being uplifting, of energizing, of unifying, of … gathering together as people,” Harvey recently told the English magazine NME. “I wanted it to be communal. So the melodies had to be something that were conducive to wanting to sing along with.… Many voices could sing these words.”

Let_england_shake_240__ Harvey does enlist other voices. Her collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey heartily join in on the choruses of “The Glorious Land” and “The Words That Maketh Murder,” songs that conjure images of children shouting them out at a school assembly. But Harvey’s words spare no detail of the horror of war — deformed children, blown-off limbs — instead of its spoils.

These serious parodies of anthems and marching songs, rendered in a postmodern style that references old battles like Gallipoli alongside new ones in the Middle East — force us to think about the price of pledging allegiances. Harvey believes that love for land can be as wrenching as sexual desire (a frequent topic for her, not touched much here), but she demands that we face the essentially destructive nature of that pull, the way it separates and, often, kills.

Using autoharp and distorted guitar, with producer Flood leaving enough space in the mix so that it works like a kind of cloud-covering, Harvey and her band mates rescale the furious force of her sound to suit the singalong style she invokes. A listener can’t help but sing along — and then ponder what it means to raise one’s voice in celebration of carnage, something citizens the world over do all the time.
There’s another side to “Let England Shake.” More personal songs focus on individual characters caught up in war’s cold game. “In the Dark Places” is a funeral dirge sung by the residents of one devastated town. “Hanging in the Wire” tells of a lone warrior, waiting for the bullet to hit him. “The Colour of the Earth,” sung by Parish, is a first-person account of a fighter whose tender comrade in the trenches was reduced to blood and bones before his eyes.

The gore in Harvey’s words, the eerie strum of the autoharp and rattle of the guitars and drums, all keep fracturing these songs even as they come together. Harvey’s song structures give rise to the feelings we’ve been taught are proper about nationhood (pride, vigor), but her arrangements — the off-kilter instruments and the sometimes almost Muezzin oscillations of her singing — topple that response, send it somewhere dark and dangerous. The double in the room on “Let England Shake” is the whole modern world. PJ Harvey has given us a righteous scare.

— Ann Powers

PJ Harvey
“Let England Shake”
Vagrant
Four stars (Out of four)

Photo: PJ Harvey in 2008. Credit: Getty Images

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