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Ever since releasing her most successful album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea in 2000, Polly Jean Harvey has given the impression of casting about for a new role, something to get her teeth into. At last, 11 years later, she has found it.
Harvey’s new album Let England Shake tackles a subject sunk deep in the British psyche. That subject is war, and it has brought the best out of Harvey. Actually it’s done more than that. Let England Shake is the most powerful work yet by any British artist about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The idea for the album lies in the concept of the war artist. “I was aware there were officially appointed poets and artists that go out there to Afghanistan and Iraq and bring back their work,” Harvey says. “I was curious why there weren’t any songwriters in that position. So that became my framework as a starting point. I officially appointed myself, in my mind anyway, as the song correspondent.”
My meeting with the self-designated official war songwriter takes place in a Kensington hotel. Harvey, 41, is up from her Dorset home. Outside is the imposing Victorian grandeur of Albertopolis: the Albert Memorial, the Royal Albert Hall, the V&A. Inside it’s all dim lighting, dark green décor and veneer panels. It’s the sort of place you can imagine discussing imperial adventures in dusty faraway lands. But Harvey – an incongruous presence with her black hair, sleek black clothes and piercing eyes – isn’t necessarily the person you’d imagine discussing them with.
She’s one of rock’s chameleons, but the personae she’s adopted over her 19-year recording career – from the howling blues-punk harpy of 1993’s Rid of Me to the West Country wraith of 2007’s White Chalk – have tended more towards the mythic, elemental side of life. We associate her with gothic darkness and unbidden emotions, not with current affairs or politics.
“I’ve always been profoundly interested and affected by what’s happening in the world and have been politically engaged from a young age, but I had never reached a point where I felt I could successfully talk about such things within my own writing,” says Harvey, in her careful, rather formal manner of speech. “It’s a very difficult thing to do, and I didn’t want to do it badly. It’s only in these last few years that I’ve got to a place as a writer where I felt I might have the language at my disposal to have a go.”
Harvey doesn’t disagree when I suggest she has been treading water since the 2001 Mercury Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The time has been spent evolving a new way of working. “Over the last five or six years I’ve started to change the way that I write. I concentrate a lot more on making the words work on their own, on the page, first of all. I’ve been working at forms and structure and poetry, trying to work out how to use imagery in a more coherent fashion.”
This new literary mode first bore fruit on 2007’s White Chalk, in which Harvey moved towards a more story-based style. The results were striking, but at barely 30 minutes it felt like a novella, not the larger work one suspected was brewing in her. That, it turns out, is Let England Shake.
Harvey researched the album heavily, beginning with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and then working back to the first world war: several of the songs are set in Gallipoli. She read military histories, oral histories, war poetry, the works of TS Eliot, and Afghan and Iraqi bloggers and poets. Harold Pinter was an influence, especially his scabrous screeds against US foreign policy, which Harvey recites with startling relish: “We blew the shit right back up their own ass...”
Her own lyrics avoid Pinter-style political activism, but are just as vivid and unsettling. Images of soldiers chanting “Death to all and everyone!” are intermingled with ones of them falling “like lumps of meat”. “And what is the glorious fruit of our land?” she sings at one point. “Its fruit is deformed children.” The reference is to the babies of Fallujah, while the lyrics provokingly echo “Strange Fruit”, the Billie Holiday-sung standard about racist lynchings in the American deep South.
“I looked at songs that address huge subject matter, political subject matter, really well. There are really few of them. ‘Strange Fruit’ was one of the songs I looked at, to see how the language is used. It’s incredibly simple and yet so powerful. And that was something to aim towards, something that I kept as a marker.”
Harvey’s idea of a political song that works “really well” is one that’s poetic and nuanced, not a tub-thumping call to action. “I had to experiment a lot to find my voice. I found if I sang in my lower register it destroyed the songs because it made them too self-important, too dogmatic, it seemed to come across opinionated. As soon as I heightened the voice and made it quite pure and unforceful, then it lost that quality.” She wanted a voice without character, “purely the narrator, like the printed word, just telling the story.”
She keeps her own politics close to her chest. “I want the opinions to be formed by the listener. I tried to write in an underwritten way. I’m not putting forward my own opinion, but you’ll probably find it in the spaces in between.”
Other works of art inspired by Iraq and Afghanistan have either been gestural, like the remains of a Baghdad car bomb that the artist Jeremy Deller placed in the Imperial War Museum, or they’ve recycled tired clichés of British soldiers as lions led by donkeys, as in Gregory Burke’s play Black Watch. In comparison, Let England Shake is a far richer experience, a kaleidoscope of linked but shifting viewpoints, suggestive lyrics and haunting music. It has been worth the wait.
Bridget Riley once said that the artist who hits a wall has to find a new approach to her work, even if it means the frustration of junking much of what you’ve done. “This destructive side to creative life is essential to an artist’s survival,” Riley wrote. In a related spirit, the destruction Harvey dramatises in Let England Shake also ranks as a creative breakthrough.
“As I get older and I’ve written more, it takes me a longer time to come up with the goods,” says Harvey. “My own goals are different now, I want to keep moving and learning. It means waiting, you have to be patient to get your best work. If it takes me 10 years until the next record, then it does. I’ll wait. I’d rather have a strong body of work than something that’s still only half-formed.”
‘Let England Shake’ is out on February 14 on Island