PJ Harvey

Fri, Feb 11, 2011, 00:00

CD CHOICE:Let England Shake Island****

There’s something wonderfully odd about Polly Jean Harvey, and all the twists and turns of her 20-odd year career. Harvey is a singer of utter singularity, beholden to no specific genre, and just when even her most fervent fans think she might deliver a same-as-usual record, along comes a curveball that soars above expectations. Harvey most recently did this with 2007’s White Chalk,and then, in collaboration with longtime associate John Parish, with 2009’s A Woman a Man Walked By.

Harvey has done it again with Let England Shake, her eighth studio album and a record of often profound beauty that, typically, doesn’t take the easy route. She reaches far beyond the average with a song suite that fixates on the first World War (the 1915 Gallipoli campaign) and England’s subsequent issues of identity, post-colonialism and the fragile state of its national psyche since its empire dissolved in a puddle around its ankles.

So far so drab, you might think at this point. But you’d be wrong. Without coming across as uninformed or pretentious, Harvey has coached her lyrics in the form of elegiac love letters to her country and a series of brittle war poetry that references Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as on The Words That Maketh Murder:

“I have seen and done things I want to forget; soldiers fell like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief, arms and legs were in the trees.”

Just as crucially, she has wrapped around her lyrics some of her most accessible melodies in years. The title track has a pop hook that snags like barbed wire; Hanging in the Wire blends the eerie with the ethereal; Written on the Foreheademploys a shot of reggae amid images of a torn Middle East.

And so it goes on – a fine record that documents the horrific past as it mirrors the discomfiting present; an insightful history lesson across a dozen sparse and spritely songs, delivered as only PJ Harvey can. See pjharvey.net

Download tracks: Let England Shake, Hanging in the Wire, Written on the Forehead