Depending on whether or not you’re a purist when it comes to considering which is the beginning and which the end of a given decade, PJ Harvey’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, released late in 2000, was either the first great album of the ‘aughts, or the last great album of the ’90s. The same folk who can tell you precisely which decade owns the rights would also probably tell you that Stories From The City isn’t Harvey’s greatest album. They would be wrong. Yes, Dry bowled us over, and in a near 20-year career there have been other high points, but Stories From The City was a perfect album, and there aren’t many of them. Stories From The City was one of the greatest New York punk albums of all time, which is pretty cool considering Harvey was born and bred in rural England.
Since then, though, we’ve been disappointed. Uh Huh Her had some magic, but was a step down, and Harvey’s collaboration two years ago with John Parish had one delightful song, “Black Hearted Love,” but even by the standards of her off-albums a single winner constituted a low point.
So when Sasha Frere-Jones — who aside from being a gorgeous writer, generally writes only about music he likes — yawningly put down Let England Shake as pretty much a bore, we accepted that. But of course still listened. You have to listen to an artist like PJ Harvey — there is no oversupply of such artists, and you have to follow the great ones into the bushes to at least see what they’re up to.
And when we listened, we were moved to declare, Wrongo, Sasha! No, there’s not a lot of guitar bashing, and there’s nothing to get the blood moving like “Sheela Na Gig” or even “The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore,” and yet this odd album, Albion-historical in nature, but still possessing a back beat, is actually filled with quiet greatness. It doesn’t quite rock, but it is both melodic and dynamic. In fact, it reminds us quite a bit of Stories Of The City. Go listen to “In The Dark Places,” which could easily fit onto her opus of 11 years ago. In fact, listen to the whole damn thing. Odd and lovely, which only partly defines Polly Jean herself, Let England Shake deserves an audience as great as the artist who made it.