Five years after Let England Shake — which some reputable music bloggers consider to be one of the best albums of recent memory — PJ Harvey is back with a new song, “The Wheel,” from her upcoming album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. While Harvey is known for dramatically changing her sound and persona from album to album, this song feels like it’s on the same path that Let England Shake was, as it maintains the folk-inspired music and lyrics drawing on war and conflict. However, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a rehash of that album, and the song feels like the the logical next step from it.
On “The Wheel,” Harvey is broadening some of the themes from Let England Shake, turning her focus to more global politics rather than only her homeland and also touching on more contemporary subject matter instead of drawing entirely from the more distant past. But the main theme — the cyclical nature of war and terrible things done in its name — is fittingly still here, illustrated by the metaphor of the titular “revolving wheel” that keeps spinning as children disappear. The video shows Harvey in Kosovo, which she visited while working on the album, but the lyrics themselves don’t specify the conflict she is referring to.
Harvey is known for not repeating herself on her albums, which is why it’s ironic that “The Wheel” is book-ended by two very noticeable repetitions. First, there’s the intro, a burst of chaotic noise with handclaps and a recurring saxophone part that lasts over 1:20 in the unedited version. Then there’s the outro, where Harvey repeats the phrase “and watch them fade out” over 20 times, which lasts 1:25 and is reminiscent of one of her most famous songs.
I’ve become obsessed with the outro in particular. In the context of the song, it is referring to the 28,000 missing children, but it’s easy to start thinking of other meanings it could have as she keeps repeating the phrase. And the fact that she says “and watch them fade out” so many times, over and over, speaks volumes in and of itself — just like the wheel keeps turning, we keep watching children fade out, and Harvey keeps singing it, shifting between a sense of accusation and resignation. In the world of art about war, “watch them fade out” is a worthy successor to a similar refrain: “so it goes.”