P J Harvey, Royal Albert Hall, London
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Tuesday 01 November 2011
P J Harvey starts by displaying her plumes, the crow-black dress and feathers of a carrion bird-lady, which she has worn this year while singing songs of death. Her latest, Mercury-winning album, Let England Shake, has gained undue plaudits for its weighty war themes, as if tackling them at all makes it a major work. But the slow, deliberate spell Harvey casts tonight taps new majesty from it.
Her band all wear waistcoats, like smithies or tailors, and at first play the album's Gothic rockabilly. Their singer performs austere, theatrical rock'n'roll, vanishing into the shadows between songs and returning subtly transformed. She's a white-lit Victorian angel of death during the war carnage of "All and Everyone", and in "Dear Darkness" a vampire queen cloaked in it, only her head spotlighted as she sings of throttled throats, black starkly carved in her white cheekbones, like an old film-star photo.
Everything is precisely arranged, including the musicians' strolls between instruments as Harvey slips away then back, all in silence. In the unseasonably hot Albert Hall, the seated audience are also cowed into attention as if watching a play, apart from a few rebel whistlers in the dark. This stops momentum sparking between songs, feeling unnatural. When Harvey sings of the world's secrets in "In the Dark Places", I don't expect to hear them in such an airless atmosphere.
But then things shift for me. A sequence of three songs dealing with her ambiguous disgust at a war-mongering nation she is deeply rooted in, climaxes with "England", a stark, pleading conversation with her country, set to drummer-boy martial rolls and her acoustic guitar. The silences start to tell now, each instrumental introduction feeling like an invocation, in a series of building spells. The Dionysian chaos associated with rock is replaced by considered, commanding music, relying on sober, lucid force.
Harvey now slips from death songs into sex, also a savage subject for her. Yellow lighting now suggests warmed, flushed flesh under neon, and in "The Pocket Knife" she leans back coquettishly, then thrusts her groin erotically out. Released from their unaccustomed restraint and Harvey's spell, the crowd give a standing ovation. A long encore is largely redundant. Anyway, this is what adult rock music should mean.
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