PJ Harvey: Live Review

PJ Harvey
Manchester Apollo
Sept 8th 2011
Live review

brilliant photos by Pete Doherty

This is England- PJ Harvey at Manchester Apollo

This is England... PJ Harvey at Manchester Apollo

This has been quite a week for PJ Harvey, what with winning the Mercury Award thingy and getting splashed all over the press, her career is about to get a second wind or a second hurricane with an album, ”˜Let England Shake’ so unlikely to do that that’s one of those refreshing and all too rare music moments.

In a pop mainstream as full of lightweight X Factor fluff contrasting uncomfortably with a world full of dark madness and endless upheavel it’s a relief to see a collection of songs loaded with an intelligence and layers of meaning fired back in there.

On release ”˜Let England Shake’ was already a success, it was her first top ten album for nearly two decades and a critical smash- now it’s on its way to going massive- a perfect soundtrack to these serious times.

PJ Harvey at Manchester Apollo

PJ Harvey with songs from this green and ghostly land

She enters the stage dressed in black, clutching her autoharp, with her feathered hinting at something dark and mystical, something stretching back into the heartland of British folk culture, of crow’s feathers, weird headdresses- an ancient lost England, an England semi crushed by the industrial revolution, an England searching for its elusive identity, an identity lost to empire, war and pain and the music matches this.

Whether this is PJ Harvey’s answer to nu-folk, her take on the current hipster soundtrack or just pure coincidence does not matter. This is a music that is steeped in an Englishness, not the tough, modern urban Englishness of most pop culture but the mist soaked green and ghostly land of the rolling centuries- the real England of melancholia and quietly repressed anger. An England built on bloodshed and empire and forever in the shadow of war.

From the moment she appeared with the album playing on Andrew Marr’s politics show to Marr himslef and, bizarrely Gordon Brown, you knew that this was no normal release. Singing about soldiers marching to death and the imperial decline to the ex Prime Minster was a moment of pure pop subversion.

These songs may be ostensibly folkish but the anger is here even if it’s not all shouted out. ”˜Let England Shake’ is laced with a resigned disgust at war, a woman’s pain at the endless war that we are trapped in, a war of victims and is a perfect reflection of these modern times when conflict is part of the backdrop to our daily lives in the Sparta of modern England.

Oddly the last time PJ Harvey won a Mercury Award it was 9/11 and she was stuck in Washington watching the smoke rise from the Pentagon and this week when she won it again it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

The pointlessness and the sadness of war oozes through the songs that she locked herself away for two years to write, like that other great British woman songwriter, Kate Bush, she has come back with a startlingly original take on an ancient culture, re-stitching the folk roots into a new cloth, creating a whole new web of intrigue with hints of old melodies re-worked for a modern age.

She stands on the stage, charismatic in her lack of showbiz bonhomie, she says nothing to the audience till the very end- she doesn’t need to indulge in any chitchat. That would be a distraction and this is a music that really does the talking. The mist laden magic of the album’s title track sounds majestic- that little keyboard hook in the track is the album’s golden moment and the chord change in the middle of the song is as good as it gets.

Her voice sounds great of course, twisted into a new space, a yearning, plaintive space, a long way from the anguished howl of ‘Rid Of Me’- this is the authoritative voice of someone who is reaching a musical maturity with her creative powers in hyperdive.

Live in the Apollo this is a bit beyond a normal rock ‘n’ roll show.

For a start its subtle with non of the usual bombast, PJ Harvey stands stage right clutching her autoharp, she doesn’t move, she just sings and plays, the band are stage left- three dusty old players, legends, the stalking kings of the dark side.

The music is quiet, understated. If you wanted to talk all the way through the set you could comfortably but you can’t because you are getting drawn into a musical web. The band sound great but then anyone who has got Mick Harvey in their lineup is onto a winner. Harvey seems to wander around the stage playing everything with deceptively casual ease. Long term watchers have seen him distinguished at every style of music, from the violence of the Birthday Party to the understated melancholia of the PJ Harvey project, the man is a genius but he is paled next to the creative machine that is PJ Harvey.

It’s been decades since I first saw her shy and diminutive onstage as some sort of fringe Riot Girl, her voice cutting glass and the guitar playing as exquisite as it was intense. I’ve seen her through every twist and turn in her career, elusive shadows, almost impossible to work out who she actually is and now here we are, bizarrely, peaking eight albums in.

She plays most of the album and the lyrical shards and snippets float past with its hints at an ethereal England. ”˜The Last Living Rose; with that great guitar hook that reminds me of the Pogues for some reason, ”˜The Glorious Land’ with that call to arms reverie on the trumpet and the sketching of the very English soil, an England that still somehow exists, the England of folk songs and misty promise, its still out there beyond the motorways and the sprawling hungry cities. She sings of an England of cruel nature, mountains, crows feathers, war and death- the eternal turning of nature, life and death- no wonder it took more than two years to get all that into the songs- this is not a Jessie J album!

It’s not just an adventure in Englishness there is the Greek Rembetika sample in England and still some hints of the poet priestess Patti Smith in there- not a direct influence just a parallel journey of understanding.

The ”˜England’ track itself perfectly captures PJ Harvey with the love of England, the mystical England, the poetic England of Pinter and Elliot oozing out, contrasting with the disgust at the eternal war. The song is evocative and angry, it makes an anti war statement without using the usual rhetoric and the poetry is poured our with her voice that has never sounded better.

This is no normal gig, this is one of those moments when pop matches the real world and stares it in the eye. This is the poetry and protest of a different kind of love and a statement of these times that somehow sits bang smack in the middle of the mainstream.

How perfect.


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