Popular music's list of duties, on paper at least, has always included documenting the human experience. That said, God save you if you stray from the "Let's party" script laid out by the ad execs and alcohol salesmen who have filled the biz's upper seats since time immemorial — and if you want to document the horrors of war without being dismissed as "political," you have your work cut out for you.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that Polly Jean Harvey's newest manages to be a song cycle about the soldier's perspective on armed combat without being a typical anti-war diatribe — and is all the better for it. Let England Shake is a stirring paean to the human spirit fashioned out of misery and death, death, death, with Harvey plucking the proverbial rose growing out of the skull in the form of some of the grandest melodies she's penned in two decades. In song after song, she pegs the powerful feelings of ambiguity that can be stirred by your own nation's flag — feelings that grow stronger with the knowledge of what people do in that flag's name. The swelling crescendo at the end of "In the Dark Places" hits it perfectly: in her edgeless-yet-piercing yearning, she captures the sound of what is lost and what is at stake, without getting maudlin. It's a fine line that she walks throughout this record. Perhaps just as important, though, is what she doesn't do with these songs: she intones England without getting folksy or Fall/Kinks music-hall-y. Her voice, more carefree than ever, beautifully counterpoints her angelic autoharp and the soft-yet-insistent drum throb throughout. Amid the carnage and the stink of loss, PJ Harvey creates inspiring beauty.