Courtney Love, who hasn’t a fraction of Polly Jean’s talent, nonetheless managed to say something about P.J. that actually was genuinely interesting: that her breakthrough album Live Through This was the record she’d been waiting for Polly Jean Harvey to make. To listen to Live Through This in 2011 is to hear just how obscenely overrated a record it is–no one could have heard the bullshit through the bluster back in 1994–and Harvey put out a record in To Bring You My Love the following year that kicks seven shades of crap out of anything Love has done since. But even so, her remark about Harvey’s work rings as true today as ever before.
The woman is now eight albums deep in a recording career that has spanned such a broad range of sounds and moods it’s as if she records specifically to defy the notion that there is any particular album she’s supposed to make. If anything is to be taken from the catalog of releases she’s assembled by now, it’s that P.J. Harvey makes only the records she wants to make; and if they don’t sound like something others expect of her, that’s their problem.
From Rid of Me to the brilliant but comparatively overlooked Is This Desire to Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea and 2007’s fascinating (if bizarre) White Chalk, Harvey’s catalog documents a creative restlessness that few of her peers can boast. Each album is such a markedly different experience from the next that it’s as if Harvey roams a new imagination with each release. Just as Stories From the City roared out of your stereo with frothing rockers like “Big Exit” and turned out the lights with the ethereal balladry of “We Float,” the record’s frenetic follow-up, Uh Huh Her, evinced total discomfort with the accessibility of its predecessor. The unyielding grunge of Rid of Me soon gave way to the hook-hungry pop rock of “Angeline.” And the chilling, spare atmosphere of White Chalk yielded a batch of songs that coated everything Harvey had done before then in a dusting of snow.
Now we have Let England Shake (due out February 15th), a record as unremittingly political as Rid of Me was savage, and a 41-year-old Harvey vowing to wait ten years before the next album if she has to, crowning herself an official “war songwriter” in the vein of “war poets” like Wilfred Owen, and singing of soldiers that fall on the battlefield “like lumps of meat.” Harvey recently told the Financial Times that she has “always been profoundly interested and affected by what’s happening in the world,” but that she never found a way to address that dimension of herself in her songs.
By all appearances, Let England Shake rather definitively marks the moment when she found a way. Recorded in “a 19th century church on a cliff overlooking the sea” with a cast of usual suspects such as John Parish and Mick Harvey, the songs navigate a history of warfare ranging from Gallipoli to Afghanistan. And Harvey reportedly abandoned herself to an insatiable appetite for research before writing these songs, scouring everything from the work of T.S. Eliot and Harold Pinter to books on World War I.
The music this time around is more fully developed than anything on White Chalk yet still, somehow, almost as unsettling (as on tracks like The Glorious Land or Bitter Branches). And her vocals, as always, explore a range from tenderness to rage and never fail to engage no matter where on that spectrum they fall. Let England Shake may not do for her career what Stories From the City did, but it is unlikely to be easily forgotten, either.