All British rock stars eventually make their version of Led Zeppelin III — the album where they look to the history and mythology of England for inspiration. Usually, this means pastoral celebrations and druids dancing around the maypole. (Hark, minstrel! Is that a bustle in the hedgerow?) But Polly Jean Harvey, as always, does things her own way, so there’s no celebration on Let England Shake. Even as she sings, “Take me back to beautiful England,” she focuses on war, imperialism and bad sanitation.
Let England Shake sounds a world apart from the introspective piano confessions of Harvey’s last solo album, 2007’s White Chalk. For England, she holed up in a rural 19th-century church, accompanied by longtime collaborators like John Parish, Mick Harvey and producer Flood. The sound is muted guitar/organ balladry, heavy on melody but never rocking out, channeling her voice through different electronic filters for that extra touch of spooky alienation. In “The Last Living Rose,” she sings about Blighty’s “gray, damp filthiness of ages.” Always an underrated guitarist, Harvey makes use of the jaunty rhythms of British folk music, but takes no comfort in the past. And you don’t have to care about English history — or England in general — to fall under Harvey’s spell.