With Arcade Fire winning Album of the Year at the 53rd Grammy Awards and the Decemberists recently finding their way to the top of the Billboard album chart, could 2011 be the year that indie rock breaks through (again)? Polly Jean Harvey has spent the better part of two decades grinding out an ever-morphing hybrid of blues, folk and electronic music that has seen both highs (1993′s breakthrough Rid of Me, 2000′s intense and moody Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea) and lows (1998′s sleepy Is This Desire? and 2007′s even sleepier White Chalk). For her new album Let England Shake (which hits store shelves today), Harvey has left the soft piano tinkling of White Chalk behind in favor of her core guitar-driven sound. Is Harvey’s return to form a welcome experiment or an exercise in treading water?
According to the reviews, everybody seems completely on board with Harvey’s latest work. Entertainment Weekly‘s Mikael Wood called Let England Shake “a hoedown for the end of civilization” and said the album was “her loosest, most eclectic effort in years.” The Guardian shared that same sort of excitement, declaring the album “a richly inventive album that’s unlike anything else in Harvey’s back catalog.” Critic Alexis Petridis also noted that Let England Shake “sounds suspiciously like the work of a woman at her creative peak.”
In a four star review in the Los Angeles Times, writer Ann Powers also heavily endorsed Harvey, who she called “rock’s master polymorph.” “The gore in Harvey’s words, the eerie strum of the autoharp and rattle of the guitars and drums, all keep fracturing these songs even as they come together,” she wrote. “Harvey’s song structures give rise to the feelings we’ve been taught are proper about nationhood (pride, vigor), but her arrangements — the off-kilter instruments and the sometimes almost Muezzin oscillations of her singing — topple that response, send it somewhere dark and dangerous.” Harvey’s recurring lyrical themes about nationalism’s ghosts also sucked in J. Edward Keyes of eMusic. “England is Harvey’s love letter to and, occasionally, bitter reproach of, her homeland,” he wrote. “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.’”
Of course, not everybody is as enamored of Let England Shake. “The feral vivacity with which Harvey shook the pop-music world back in the ’90s is in short supply here,” wrote USA Today‘s Elysa Gardner. “There’s some potent social commentary here, but nothing that will likely re-establish Harvey as a rock goddess.” Still, the greatness of Let England Shake was summed up perfectly by Spin writer Amanda Petrusich. “Arguably her most pop-friendly record since 2000′s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, it’s an intense indictment of the way countries fight, apolitical only in that it outlines what war does to human beings, not governments,” she wrote. “Sung with warmth, these tracks offer a welcome antidote to her more familiar performance mode — spectacular austerity. They’re as bloody and forceful as the battles Harvey references.”
What do you think of PJ Harvey’s new album? Let us know in the comments!