(These last two albums I’ve commented on here before, but this account is more about personal response than a dispassionate review, so is a bit different.)
Reticent though Ms H was now committed to being, in Let England Shake she knew she’d done something that was in an entirely different league from her work thereto. You can see the pleasure, the perfectly reasonable pleasure an artist takes in having achieved something close to what they were aiming for, in the interviews she did around the time (she actually winked at Miranda Sawyer). Over St Peter’s Church, Eype, on the windswept downs of southwest Dorset no more than a mile from her home, the planets locked fortuitously into alignment, and what emerged from those few weeks PJ and her musicians spent there was a text of such subtlety, of such beauty, such compassion and such eternal resonance that it defies analysis. The album wasn’t really ‘about’ World War One, notwithstanding the references scattered through its tracks: it distilled the whole history of human conflict into a series of emotional statements given substance by a bewildering range of source material. It was truly magnificent, as simultaneously grandiose and as detailed as a medieval cathedral. The awards and accolades showered down. Two years later she would receive the MBE.
It took some mental recalibration to get used to, as her work always does. Fans of the old rock-style Polly Harvey who’d hung on hoping White Chalk was just an aberration now gave up: an autoharp? seriously? As usual, I was slow on the uptake. There were several tracks that immediately grabbed me, most especially ‘Last Living Rose’ (I’ve mentioned it here before), that aching exploration of what it’s like to love a country, with all its flaws and shortcomings. I watched Seamus Murphy’s video for the song, recognised the cliffs of West Bay and the church of St Cuthbert, Wells, and found myself getting a bit weepy at its humanism – the bookending image of the skeleton in the museum. Other pieces took longer to bed in, but weeping would become something of a habit. The more I listened, the more the complexity and composition of the music was apparent, the more moving it seemed to become. When Polly accepted the Mercury Award, the only artist ever to win it twice, she welcomed most of all the fact that ‘an album like this’ could be recognised: it was good to exult along with her, and take pleasure in the fact that the queen of the alternative was finally being feted in the way we felt she deserved.
Once I’d worked out that Eype was where the album was recorded, I realised that, despite having been to almost every church in Dorset, it was one I’d never visited. On holiday in July that year I went for a lovely long walk around Bridport, taking in St Peter’s (where I just managed not to be hideously overemotional), and had an ice cream at West Bay. This was where it happened, I reflected: and all around, that beautiful landscape, the land Polly reminds us is ‘weighted down with silent dead’. O England my lionheart, you leave a taste, a bitter one. Just by the footpath out of Eype there is a radio mast whose incongruity in those green hills struck me, and I photographed it, later discovering that it had struck the singer too – she included it in a series of drawings. If you look carefully at the portrait photo accompanying the interview she did for GQ in 2011, it’s right in the corner.
She was now disappearing further into her work. One reviewer described Let England Shake as ‘a curiously humble masterpiece’, pointing out that many of the words were not the singer’s own, that she was becoming a medium, vocalising for the dead – a step beyond the multifoiled identities she’d adopted in the past. For live performances, she became a creature of straps and raven feathers, a seeress or a Sibyl, the priestess of an unfamiliar faith. And yet, aspects of who she was becoming were going to move into the light for the first time, despite herself.