A Woman, A War

A new PJ Harvey needs a certain amount of preparation to listen to. For starters, you’ve got to be in the right mood. After all, it’s not like all her records have been what you would happily call “easy listening”. Plus there’s the subject matter; often about the terrors of the human heart and the dreadful lengths men and women will go to for love, and occasionally about muuuurder and the like. So her new album, Let England Shake, was approached by me with a sense of trepidation. Would we get the nice(ish) Polly of “Stories….”, or the wailing banshee Polly of “Is This Desire?”.

When the album’s subject matter became clear, you might be forgiven for being even more concerned that we’d hear Wailing Banshee Polly in full effect. Lots has been written about the subject matter of much of the album – that of England’s role in the deep trauma of the First World War – yet Let England Shake is Polly’s most listenable record, almost pastoral in its willingness to engage with the listener. You can see Polly sitting in the conservatory of her Dorset home, reading a copy of “The Last Fighting Tommy” with a guitar on her lap, ruminating on what such a horrendous war did to a generation and the generations that followed, looking out at the green fields and woods of the beautiful English countryside.

This is a thoughtful album, written by an artist who knows exactly what she wants to say, knows how to say it, and knows clearly and exactly how to make sure the music matches the message. By and large, the songs are simple – simple percussion, strummed guitar-like lines on an Autoharp, very little that couldn’t be played by an averagely talented band. No sudden bursts of electronica, no strange key or tempo changes, all elegantly produced. Nothing gets in the way of her clear and single-minded vision; few distracting screams or wails of the kind she used to unleash whenever she felt things were getting just too comfortable. This is an older, wiser Polly Jean, and one you’re glad to have around, like an old friend who has got over her crazy days to become a trusted confidante.

And this thoughtful, confident album is a nailed-on, absolute certainty for being one of the best of 2011. A record few artists could produce; stripping down the instrumentation to make the songs approachable, writing lyrics so evocative of hatred and war yet never, ever feeling forced. A wonderful record, the kind that elevates PJ Harvey to a whole new level, that of a full-on, bona fide Artist, with a capital A and everything it brings.

If you’re not convinced, go to the YouTube channel here to listen to all the tracks, in a series of beautiful films by Seamus Murphy. Great for fans and newbies alike.

(Author’s note: apologies for the brevity of this. Frankly I want to write more, but there isn’t the time).

MP3: Written On The Forehead by PJ Harvey

Buy “Let England Shake” (CD/MP3)