I just did a quick survey of our record collection, and on Monday when I buy a copy of Let England Shake I’ll own 11 PJ Harvey albums (that’s including the two John Parrish collaborations and 4-Track Demos). The only artists I own more CDs by are Miles Davis and The Beatles. Super Furry Animals come pretty close, but I can’t think of many other artists who do.
For a while, when I was about 15 or 16, I didn’t like female vocalists. It was something that worried the adolescent me, made me fear that I might be some kind of appallingly instinctive sexist pig. I’ve got over that dislike now.
Perhaps more importantly, I also didn’t like singers who sang in the third person, who assumed the voice of a narrator or character other than himself or herself. I thought music – art – had to be something deeply personal and individual to be of any worth. I’m still pretty solipsistic regarding music in many ways, but this is pretty much also something I’ve got over. I suspect that “getting” PJ Harvey perhaps relies more on this sea-change in my musical tastes than in the other.
Despite owning every PJ Harvey album, I didn’t buy a single one until Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea came out when I was 21 and at University. Sometimes I regret this, but in the words of the Butthole Surfers, it’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done. And, you know, I’ve caught up. I just wish I’d had the thrill of listening to 50ft Queenie when I was 15.
Polly Jean gets
a bad rep no; she seems misunderstood by people who don’t “get” singers assuming other identities or voices in their songs. People think she is everything she sings about. People think she’s a frustrated, wailing banshee, consumed by dirty lust. A mysterious, orphaned child, abandoned by her family. Now, on Let England Shake, briefly, people will think she’s a Euro-skeptic war-poet; a dead soldier in a trench.
But she’s not. I’m pretty sure that she’s said herself, and explicitly, that every song she’s ever sung has been a story, a narrative, about a character, a projection rather than a reflection. A performance based on an imagining or an empathy. Her first name is not Angelene. When she sang “lick my legs / I’m on fire” she was not necessarily singing about her own desires. I suspect she has never stabbed anyone with a pocketknife. She has never, I hope, seen her baby drowned. To assume that every word, every note, that composes PJ Harvey’s music is wrung from the depths of her tortured soul is to misunderstand her theatre, is to misconstrue her art, is to undervalue her talents and her achievements.
Let England Shake is a magnificent album; I would say it’s one of her best, but I don’t think she’s made a bad record. Even Uh Huh Her, perhaps her least celebrated, is still more compelling than the lesser works of any artist I can think of. When you consider that it’s 20 years since she debuted her then three-piece band, and that I cannot think of any artist in the sphere of “pop music” who has still been producing work that needs to be described as essential after that length of time, not one, that Let England Shake is as good as it is – and it is magnificent, really, truly magnificent – is a marvel.
Let England Shake is a misty, spectral record. Plenty of other people have written or spoken about its lyrical qualities – they are astonishing, and that’s coming from me – but it is also musically absolutely compelling. The melodies are as commanding and compelling as any I’ve heard in a long time, even when shrouded in clouds of guitars, when buried beneath strange samples, when drummed over, when masked by brass, when subsumed beneath piano. Her voice is sometimes higher, as it was on White Chalk, but it is recognizably Polly Jean.
Unsurprisingly it is a peculiarly English record, folky, poetic, very literally about England, its wars, its struggles, its guilt. Even the samples and musical appropriations, from Eddie Cochrane to The Four Lads to Niney The Observer to something vaguely Arabic that I cannot identify, reflect England’s partners, colonial outposts, victims, enemies. Written On The Forehead, which samples Blood And Fire by Niney The Observer, is a strange, ghostly, My-Bloody-Valentine-folk dream with a lilting, reggae-ish lope inspired by the sample buried within it.
I’ve only listened to Let England Shake two or three times so far, and already it feels important, its artistry apparent within seconds but yet unfolding further. I feel I may listen to nothing but PJ Harvey for some time.