Amid the cheers and applause and flashbulbs that met the announcement of the 2011 Mercury prize on Tuesday night, Polly Harvey‘s stillness and composure was the most striking image: there, at the centre of the hullaballoo, clutching her statuette, she exuded a quiet potency. “It makes me really happy,” she told the assembled crowd, “and it makes me want to continue to go about my work as I’ve always done, taking great care and seriousness over it.”
The award for Let England Shake crowns a remarkable career. “There are very few musicians who can go on developing completely new ideas, new sounds, and new curiosities about the world,” Simon Frith, chair of the Mercury judging panel, recently told 6 Music, “and PJ Harvey is an astonishing artist.” What makes Harvey astonishing, some 20 years after she began, is the fact that she seems so undiluted. In 2001, she was the first woman to win the Mercury as a solo artist, for Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Ten years later, a second win makes her the first artist to take the award twice, and serves as confirmation, if it were needed, that she remains one of the most thrilling and relevant musicians working today.
Let England Shake is a quite startling record, as many will now be discovering – in the wake of the prize, sales have grown by 1,190%, placing the album second only to Adele in the midweek charts. This is an album fed by the poetry of Harold Pinter and TS Eliot, as well as the work of Salvador Dalí and Francisco de Goya, and the music of the Pogues, the Doors and the Velvet Underground. It is an album that samples Niney the Observer’s Blood and Fire and the Four Lads’ Istanbul (Not Constantinople) and writhes with dead sea captains and riots and rolling fog. And yet it is also a melodious, beautiful album, passionate and rich and alive.
It is precisely these qualities that have contributed to Harvey’s appeal over the past two decades. Her work, from the raw, skewed, abrasive Rid of Me, released in 1993, to 2007’s sublime, eerie White Chalk, has always seemed vital and bold, yet somehow also intimate, and indeed much of her music seems to inhabit similarly ambiguous, near-contradictory territory. “[She] has the bravery and rigour to channel music so deep, visceral and beautiful that Let England Shake achieves the sublime by sounding both ancient and new at the same time,” says the film and theatre director Ian Rickson, who has worked with Harvey. “The fact that she has produced original, pioneering music consistently for nearly 20 years makes her one of our most prized cultural treasures.”
The daughter of a sculptor and a stonemason, Harvey was raised in Dorset, and began her musical career in 1988, providing vocals and saxophone for the band Automatic Dlamini. At the beginning of 1991, she formed her own self-titled trio, and then, two years later, began work as a solo artist. Her earliest single, 1991’s Dress, was feted by John Peel, who wrote in Melody Maker of how “Polly Jean seems crushed by the weight of her own songs and arrangements”. Her first album, Dry, released the following spring, was greeted with international acclaim, with Rolling Stone naming her songwriter of the year.
Since then, there have been seven albums, including the bluesy, mournful To Bring You My Love, and the muted, unsettling Is This Desire? And there have been crinolines, catsuits, references to Flannery O’Connor and Saint Catherine, tours with Morrissey, duets with Björk and six Grammy nominations. But all the while, she has remained largely in the West Country, and worked principally with a close musical circle, including her “musical soulmate” John Parish, long-term collaborators Rob Ellis, Mick Harvey and the producer Flood. What has fed her work has been her fearlessness, her willingness to be vulnerable, and her unquenchable curiosity.
The writing of Let England Shake took two and a half years, in which time Harvey’s curiosity led her not only to learn the autoharp, but also to research the history of conflict and the Gallipoli campaign, to explore war photography, and read testaments by those caught up in the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The result is an album enriched by the weight of these investigations, and one that also serves as a reflection of the past decade – its upheavals and conflicts and political disturbances.
It is hard not to tether Let England Shake to the events of 9/11, to view it as an album that began in many ways on the day Harvey collected her first Mercury prize that same day in September 2001, sitting in a hotel room in Washington, watching the Pentagon burn on TV. That it took her so many years to articulate her feelings towards that day and subsequent events is testament not only to the enormity of the subject, but also to her growth as a songwriter. “If you’re going to talk about giant subject matter, you’ve got to do it well,” she said recently. “And I didn’t feel I had the skill as a writer up until this point. And then I suppose because I’m a bit older now, I’ve been working at songwriting for a long, long time, I thought it might be the time to try to see if it was possible.”
“It is wonderful,” Harvey told the audience on Tuesday night, “to have the recognition.” Yet for all the sparkle and pleasure that such accolades bestow, she has never been an artist in pursuit of fame or fortune or award. “I’m in it for the learning,” she once said of her career. What Harvey’s award shows is that it is entirely possible to have a lengthy and exploratory musical career, that in these times of instant fame and fast pop success, there are merits and rewards in longevity, dedication, thoroughness and thoughtfulness. “I hope to be back here in another 10 years’ time with another record,” she said on Tuesday night, “because it’s very important to me to keep making work that is of relevance, not just to myself, but to other people.”
Laura Barton, The Guardian