Of the 1,156 words that comprise the lyric sheet to PJ Harvey’s eighth album, Let England Shake, “death” and “England” come up the most. But this is no slight meditation on mortality and patriotism from gothic alt-rock’s reigning English queenie—it’s a full-blown panorama of resignation and national mourning. Such big-screen sentiments don’t come easy, which explains why the artist otherwise known as Polly Jean Harvey apparently spent two years on her verses to get them just right; to make room, she has largely excised her usual themes (love, disappointment, sex, motherhood) now that she feels comfortable writing about politics, or, as she calls them, “outwards” topics.
Polly has endured a long journey to reach that point. When she convened the first iteration of PJ Harvey 20 years ago, she squealed and reeled alongside what sounded like a shambolic, garage-rock Patti Smith Group. From that point forward, though, she reinvented herself album by album, just like early-inspiration David Bowie. Most recently, she zigzagged between the hard rock of 2004’s Uh Huh Her and the soft piano that dominated her last record, 2007’s White Chalk; this time, she has found a middle ground therein, an appropriately murky backdrop as she channels another of her early inspirations: Bob Dylan.
Like vintage Bob, Shake pores over history’s indignities with a fine-toothed comb. And though Polly’s lyrics aren’t as “outwards” as his, when divorced from their music, they could approach Whitman-esque poetry. (“Let England shake/Weighted down with silent dead,” goes the title track.) It is perpetually almost protest music, but she never pulls the trigger on calling out the guilty, though on “The Words That Maketh Murder,” alongside such macabre lines as “soldiers fell like lumps of meat,” she also quotes Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues,” singing, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”
Dark and impressionistic, the songs here are textured with the likes of autoharps, zithers, and the whispered tones of Polly’s voice—another important Dylan deviation. (Also, for the first time, she squonks on the only instrument for which she ever received training—saxophone—despite once admitting that she usually considered that particular sound “quite nauseating.”) Shake‘s secret weapon, though, is her supporting cast, including longtime collaborators John Parish and former Birthday Party/Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey (no relation), who know just when to underplay. For the album’s most arresting song, “On Battleship Hill,” they create a trembling guitar backdrop, only to pull back for Polly’s verses about how “cruel nature has won again,” sung poignantly in a choirboy-like falsetto.
The only weak points come when Polly gets too experimental. Throughout “The Glorious Land,” a bugle blows the military call for assembly at unpredictable points, detracting from the grim verses (“What is the glorious fruit of our land?/Its fruit is orphaned children”). And the dreamy “Written on the Forehead” over-relies on a sample of reggae pioneer Niney the Observer singing “Let it burn,” which sounds like a crossed radio signal until Polly’s voice joins at the end. But overall, despite being what she’s called her least introspective album, Shake seems to present Polly Jean Harvey, the person, more clearly than on any previous PJ Harvey release: She is confident in her fragility, sincere in her profound love for her country and her countrymen, and awash in deep sympathy for the men and women who’ve died in the name of her homeland. For an album pondering the tragedies of war, perhaps one word she never sings is most revealing: “hope.”