Polly Jean ditches the nostalgia for a politically charged New York set.
While many of her ’ 90s peers are riding the wave of nostalgia revisiting their breakthrough albums, Polly Jean Harvey has been marching forward as determinedly as ever. Tonight, she’s onstage in a mid-sized Brooklyn venue, wearing what looks like a dead crow on her head, wielding a saxophone like a ceremonial totem, and performing a set of unforgiving songs inspired by visits to war-torn Afghanistan, Kosovo and inner-city Washington, DC. It’s definitely not a move designed to reignite past glories. But Bridport’s most famous daughter has little interest in the dream of the ’ 90s, preferring instead to remain wholly inside the nightmare of today. Last year’s The Hope Demolition Project album saw her playing a journalist of sorts, documenting her travels and earning accusations of poverty tourism to boot. A former mayor of Washington, DC criticised Harvey publicly for her unyieldingly grim portrayal of parts of the city in the lead single The Community Of Hope, while his campaign treasurer accused her of being “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.” But inside this new Williamsburg venue, Harvey doubles down on her latest album, performing 10 of the 11
tracks and barely uttering a word to the sold-out crowd. Dispatched early in the set, The Community Of Hope is one of the songs that speaks loudest. It is a much-needed reminder of the harsh social realities and ignored urban blight (located just a few miles away) that helped give the current US Trump-led administration a route to power. With the maddeningly catchy refrain, “They’re gonna put a Walmart here,” Harvey has created the most unlikely pop hook of her career. In America, Harvey’s oldest fans have fond memories of her as part of the PJ Harvey trio (featuring drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan), who enthralled on their tour in support of Rid Of Me in 1993, even though they were barely on speaking terms and subsequently split, leaving Harvey to become a fully-fledged solo act. Nearly a quarter of a century later, she’s back with the PJ Harvey dectet, featuring (among others) former Bad Seeds Mick Harvey and James Johnston, and occasional QOTSA guitarist Alain Johannes. Harvey frequently sinks back from front of stage, to add blasts of saxophone, and to ensure her own star power doesn’t completely eclipse the cacophony. Together, the group provide an impressive range of textures and moods. It’s an expertly measured backing that runs from the juddering The Ministry Of Defence or the intense, White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground squall of noise that is The Wheel, to the piano-led chills of To Talk To You (a throwback to 2007’ s White Chalk). It’s during these more subdued moments that Harvey is also able to show her own vocal power. The guttural growl thrills of her early work are few, but Harvey is stretching her falsetto in more entrancing ways than ever. The statements of artistic reinvention are made clear, but even someone as fearless and progressive as Harvey can’t escape her history. The opening notes of 50ft Queenie relieve a brewing impatience in the room. A note-perfect recreation of Down By The Water (still her biggest US hit) add something close to celebratory feel, but Harvey is determined to end the night on her terms, and does so with a stirring version of River Anacostia. The song evokes the heavily polluted body of water close to Washington, DC, and for added goodtime vibes, weaves in lines from the slave spiritual Wade In The Water. Her fans may feel slighted at this (almost) hit-free set, but few people became PJ Harvey fans because she was offering an easy ride. After 25 years, she remains on her own personal demolition project, and it’s up to us to sift through the grim but fascinating rubble.
FEW PEOPLE BECAME PJ HARVEY FANS BECAUSE SHE WAS OFFERING AN EASY RIDE.
Windy city: PJ Harvey and band have a blowout in NYC; (below right) meet the Harveys, Polly and bassist Mick; (below left) PJ Harvey, “fearless and progressive.”