The ghosts of Polly Harvey's half-remembered childhood come seeping through the floorboards on Let England Shake — snatches of songs that would have played over battered transistors as she was hitting adolescence in the rural British town of Dorset, ghostly images of old friends and fallen leaders, anecdotes of centuries-old skirmishes fought and lost on its plains and in its hills. They show up the way memories do: at random and haphazardly, sometimes welcome and warming, sometimes rude and insistent. They bleed into her songs with no regard to their rhythm or construction; a fragment of "Reville" blasts rudely across "The Glorious Land," "The Words that Maketh Murder" surrenders in its final moments to a snatch of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," and the xylophone that opens "Let England Shake" is a loose interpolation of the Four Lads' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," (clearer in an early performance) — a sly nod to the fluidity of national identity.
That's not accidental: England is Harvey's love letter to and, occasionally, bitter reproach of, her homeland. Recorded in a church near Harvey's birthplace and bolstered by expert underplaying of longtime collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey, the album is both familial and strange, a valentine cooed from a crooked mouth, the kind of sonnet that makes room for lines like, "let's head out to the fountain of death."
Harvey's no stranger to internal conflict: On her best records, 1993's Rid of Me and 1995's To Bring You My Love, she used a manic yowl and slash-and-burn guitar tactics to explore the crippling — and frequently crazy-making — dualities of love. They were twin engines of desire and despair. Rid of Me was the hot, fast fire, but Love found Harvey covered in soot and kicking around in the ash. It was a scorched, primal blues record, one that opened with notions of love's sacrifice and ended with Harvey alone, crying to a deaf god over a lover who had abandoned her. They work both in tandem with and opposition to one another. On Rid of Me, Harvey is tough and confrontational — she's "coming up man-size" and comparing herself to cosmonaut Yuri G; on Love, she's dead and drowned before the album even starts.
England traffics in those same polarities, but transfers the object of affection from a person to a place. Harvey's relationship with her homeland is complex: In "The Last Living Rose," she's affectionate, spitting "Goddamn Europeans — take me back to beautiful England" over a bare guitar strum; but just one song later she's acrid and bitter, sneering, "What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is deformed children" as a mirage-like ocean of guitar and bass ripples and surges behind her (and if you think we're off the hook across the pond, think again: She sings "Oh, America" just as often as she sings "Oh, England"). If its lyrics are any indication, much of the album's titular shaking is from cannon fire. The ghosts of dead soldiers run wild across the songs; they fall "like lumps of meat" in "The Words That Maketh Murder," their limbs landing in tree branches, bloody and grotesque; they turn the beach in "All and Everyone" into "a bank of red earth/ dripping down death." But for all her disappointment, Harvey never sinks to polemic. Her anger springs from the same place as her affection: "Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England," she sighs at one point, "is all to which I cling."
For at least half of the album, Harvey's voice is high-pitched and mangled, a witchlike shriek that imbues the songs with the menace of black magick (She sings the line "England's dancing days are done" like she's reading it off an Ouija Board). The sonics throughout are warped and blurry. Nothing is crisp and there are no hard edges. Instead, the music drifts by as hazy and surreal as a dream, stocked with familiar faces and people and events all melting together. Her appropriation of old songs whole-cloth is a masterful touch. They seem to drift up from the deepest recesses of her subconscious. She cackles out "On Battleship Hill" like a vampire castrata, the jagged edges of her voice puncturing the netting of autoharp. "Hanging in the Wire" swings to the other extreme, the two Harveys (Polly and Mick) murmuring lyrics over icicles of piano.
The album reaches its apotheosis in the magnificent fever dream "Written on the Forehead." From a construction standpoint, it's a masterpiece. Harvey steals the chorus of Niney the Observer's "Blood and Fire" and glues it to the middle of a song that buckles like a vinyl record in the summer sun. And after an album's worth of opposition, Harvey at last commingles the twin fires of passion and destruction, issuing to both the same joyous, repeated command: "Let it burn, let it burn, let it burn, burn, burn."