It still pains me to listen to 1995's To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey's breakout album. I stopped listening to her for years because of it. Watching Harvey transform from the smirking blues-punk girl on Rid of Me's cover into a gonzo lounge queen slinking around in a red satin slip dress and fake eyelashes was like watching Patti Smith become Lady Gaga.
TBYML's sharp left turn showed Harvey setting a precedent that she wasn't gonna be anybody's artist. No one record has really foreshadowed the next; she's always inventing new personas.
With Let England Shake, Harvey is the cultural historian; her subject is the British Empire; and her method is pastoral folk delivered in a cloud of Hound of the Baskervilles moor-fog. That twinge of gothic pallor lets you know it's a PJ Harvey record. All of her roles have been various iterations of the Bride of Frankenstein—dripping with artifice, putridly sexy and mildly horrified by themselves.
But has she ever sounded so self-possessed, so damned unhaunted, as she does on "The Last Living Rose"? Fifteen years ago, she'd have delivered the word "quiver" as a masochistic provocation. Here, it's pure transcendence. On "England," as she pronounces the -er in "withered," all of her previous incarnations fall away. She's an entirely new character, a Delphic seer dipping her feet in the reflecting pool.
PJ, I'm sorry I left you that time for wearing too much makeup. Never again, darling.