What PJ Harvey’s Portentous New Songs Tell Us About Her Much-anticipated Album

Back in 2011, NME awarded PJ Harvey’s last album Let England Shake 10/10, and called it her “most affecting and impressive work so far”. Needless to say, we’re pretty excited about the forthcoming follow-up, reportedly due next year. Polly played 10 of its tracks at a recent gig at London’s Royal Festival Hall, at which she launched her book of poetry, The Hollow of the Hand, a collaboration with photographer Seamus Murphy. Clips of two of the songs, ‘Ministry of Social Affairs’ and ‘Chain of Keys’, have surfaced online and here’s what they might tell us about the upcoming album…

Scrutiny hasn’t overwhelmed her

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Well, was it ever likely to? Earlier this year, Polly turned the recording of her new album into an art project in its own right, allowing punters to watch her in the studio at Somerset House in London. But, if the storming ‘Ministry of Social Affairs’ is anything to go by, she wasn’t tamed by effectively becoming a zoo attraction. It’s a portentous, pounding guitar track that hits the ground running and gathers in pace as it pummels the listener. Meanwhile, in the clip above, Polly doesn’t even break a sweat.

She’s still obsessed with the city

“See the city in the rain,” she snarls on ‘…Social Affairs’, “as the sky is darkened there.” She talks about “three lines of traffic” before dropping a reference to the ominous-sounding titular government body. The city, a living thing, positively throbs with menace here, just as it did on her classic 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. And, man, the way she spits the words “The Ministry of Social Affairs”, she might as well be referencing ‘The Ministry of Truth’ from George Orwell’s novel 1984.

The percussion slays

Both tracks, really quite different in many ways, given that ‘… Social Affairs’ is a stomping, guitar-led number and ‘Chain of Keys’ is more contemplative, share striking, pounding percussion – especially the quietly sinister military drum-rolls that keep the latter marching forward.

The album could be oppressive but accessible

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The tracks are atmospheric, dense, confrontational and – on the face of things – not exactly immediate live favourites. But despite their portentousness, both songs have a nagging, earworm quality, from the insistent refrain “That’s what they want, oh yeah!” on ‘…Social Affairs’ to the quavering vocal high notes that soar over the grinding ‘Chain of Keys”.

Polly’s still a storyteller

As we’ve seen, ‘…Social Affairs’ draws an ominous portrait of an imposing government body using keys words and phrases, while ‘Chain of Keys’ take a more narrative approach, following a character who’s carry a ring and “walking on dusty ground”. We later learn the woman is “dressed in black” and are implored to “imagine what her eyes have seen”. It’s such a vivid image it could be taken from a graphic novel set in the Wild West. Anyway, one thing’s for certain: PJ Harvey can still tell a mean tale.

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