Friday, April 29, 2011

Let Polly Shake

Cross-posted at

Polly Jean Harvey has always been noted for her chameleonic nature. She’s said it herself: “when I'm working on a new record, the most important thing is to not repeat myself ... that's always my aim: to try and cover new ground and really to challenge myself. Because I'm in this for learning.” Rising from this spirit of exploration, her albums have ranged from gritty blues (To Bring You My Love) to haunted folk (White Chalk) to raw punk (Rid of Me). But the sound is always a function of each disc’s thematically distinct context, not simply chosen from a style buffet.

Her new collection, Let England Shake, shows an amalgam of these styles in what’s been offhandedly referred to as an “anti-war” album. Leery as always of labels, Harvey has called the work “apolitical.” That it is, in the sense that the twelve songs focus on the personal toll of nationalism, imperialism, warfare and the mass delusions of crowds. She avoids easy answers, but death stalks the listener at every turn. “I have seen and done things I want to forget,” says one narrator, “Soldiers fall like lumps of meat.” In another she tells of the “glorious fruit of our land:” its children, orphaned and deformed.

Harvey approaches the different characters in the songs with a variety of vocal styles, from an ironic, girlish sing-song to a forlorn wail. The instrumentation likewise serves the mood of the material, the opening track seemingly starting mid-song with a spooky xylophone line. Harvey plays guitar and autoharp throughout, but also adds sax, violin and zither to various tracks. Longtime collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey (no relation) add percussion, horns, keys, guitars and vocals. With production work from Flood, the songs were recorded in a 19th Century church overlooking the seaside cliffs of Dorset.

Let England Shake takes us to dark and tormented places with a sense of wonder and compassion. The results of this career highlight were on display at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on April 14 – one of four stops on her US tour supporting the album. The show has been streamed on NPR, and an edited version is available for podcast.

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