sat 20/07/2024

PJ Harvey, Troxy | reviews, news & interviews

PJ Harvey, Troxy

PJ Harvey, Troxy

The shape-shifting songstress unveils a new look to go with her new sound

PJ Harvey: Letting England shake, rattle and roll in style

Since breaking through with her 1992 debut album Dry, PJ Harvey has constantly been on the move, changing and evolving, both musically and sartorially. Last night at the Troxy in East London was no exception. As she walked onstage dressed in a long black frock with a riot of matching feathers exploding from her head, she resembled Lady Gaga's bonkers West Country Edwardian ancestor.

The music, on the other hand, was less harebrained, but frequently breathtaking, as Harvey worked her way through her new album. Let England Shake explores the nature of war, concluding that we do not seem capable of learning from our errors and appear doomed to repeat them. The weaponry might be increasingly sophisticated but the tragedy stays the same. The lyrics are intriguing, both original and also drawn directly from first-hand accounts of battles such as Gallipoli. After verbatim theatre how about "verbatim rock"? I bet her Dorset neighbour, ex-squaddie Billy Bragg, wishes he'd thought of this.

Harvey was mesmerising as she stood in the spotlight stage right and accompanied herself on auto-harp, which she rested on her shoulder like a sleeping baby, and later guitar. On "The Words That Maketh Murder", the recent winner of an NME Outstanding Contribution to Music Award hauntingly sang, "I've seen and done things I want to forget", the subsequent imagery of severed arms and legs in trees evoking the paintings of Goya. On "All and Everyone” the morbid theme continued with the opening phrase, "death was everywhere", while “The Glorious Land” boasted a discombobulating bugle motif.

The concert was undeniably captivating, yet it could have been even better. One would not expect Harvey to be throwing rock shapes to accompany the Kate Bush-like "On Battleship Hill", but she stood frustratingly still for much of the evening, where previously she has had a confident swagger. And apart from introducing the band during the encore – Nick Cave's erstwhile oppo Mick Harvey (who could make a pretty penny if there was a demand for Wittgenstein lookalikes to open supermarkets), John Parish and drummer Jean-Marc Butty – she said nothing, letting her songs speak for themselves.

In fact, up in the balcony there was an eerie mood to the delicately restrained show, which was at times beautifully sepulchral but elsewhere downright odd. It was difficult to build a head of steam because of too much retuning, instrument-switching and general tinkering about from Mick Harvey and John Parish between almost every song. It did not help the serious intent that there was a hot-dog vendor walking around the circle seats selling his wares during lulls.

Gradually though, Harvey sprang to life, particularly when she lobbed in some older favourites. Her murder ballad "Down by the Water" slotted in well with the tone of the new album and, during the encore, a stripped-back, recontextualised version of "Big Exit" from 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea got one of the biggest cheers of the night. The line “I want a pistol, I want a gun” was a reminder of how much violent imagery there has always been in Harvey’s lyrics.

Altogether an oddly enjoyable evening, cementing Harvey’s reputation as a performer who never shies away from pushing boundaries. When Let England Shake was released, Harvey wondered in interviews why there were war poets but no war songwriters. Since then there has been talk of her taking up such a post in the future. Harvey might have to ditch the Miss Havisham dress to do it, but judging from her bravura moments on the East London front line last night, she certainly seems fearless enough.

Watch PJ Harvey perform 'The Words that Maketh Murder'


It did not help the mood that there was a hot-dog vendor walking around the circle seats selling his wares during lulls

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