Let England Shake was a look at contemporary England, using the First World War as an extended allegory. PJ Harvey was asking if society had even moved on from the brutality and bloodshed of our past, and on The Wheel she begins to answer that question.
The Wheel bristles with apocalyptic verve, and whilst at first the ominous lyrics – “a revolving wheel of metal chairs” – seem to be about a fantasy scenario, it becomes apparent that Harvey is singing about something more abstract. She speaks of a “tableau of the missing”, and tells a tale of children disappearing – “I heard it was 28,000”. Her tale could be set in our current age, or it could be set at any time in history. Harvey is taking a birds-eye-view of suffering, and it feels like the perfect progression from her last album.
The Wheel also maintains a lot of the sonic quirks of Let England Shake, in its jazzy soft-rock, but it taps into a more visceral and primal place than that album did. The percussion is limited to handclaps, and the queasy saxophone provides the most memorable instrumental line. Otherwise, the song largely defers to its campfire chant vocal melodies. By the time Harvey reaches the song’s climax, a lyric repeated ad infinitum – “and watch them fade out” – the song feels timeless and crushing. The Hope Six Demolition Project cannot come soon enough.