Cast in the mould of a true artist, Polly Jean Harvey sets herself the increasingly undervalued task of reinventing her music with each album. White Chalk is the critically acclaimed result of this iconic singer-guitarist's virgin explorations on the piano at home in Dorset. In a recent interview she admitted she'd sooner have made sculptures with disembodied piano keys than actually composed on this formidable instrument.
Casually strolling on stage, her slender frame is engulfed by a white Victorian dress embroidered with black words and squiggles, her brown hair taken to tousled curls. She wears no make-up and greets us with her sweet voice and childlike smile. One must remind oneself that this woman almost single-handedly confronted the bipartisan Brit-pop of the lads from Blur and Oasis in the mid-Nineties with her visceral blues-rock guitar and songs of desire and loss – most memorably sporting a pink catsuit at Glastonbury in a vamped theatrical persona she reportedly described as like "Joan Crawford on acid".
Her piano has its front panels removed to reveal its full dentures and innards. The top of the cabinet holds a metronome, a framed photo, a Japanese doll, a tiny metal eagle on the wing and there is a sheepskin on the seat. The stage is adorned with Christmas lights to complete this intimate solo show.
Strapping on a guitar, Harvey opens with the heavy swinging riff and low-pitched holler of the title track from To Bring You My Love from 1995, along with the crisp gypsy guitar turns of "Send His Love To Me". She takes to the piano with graceful aplomb.
Her first single from White Chalk, "When Under Ether", is a startling change. Her vocals shift to a high and plaintive register, moving us from earthy sexually charged blues to an ethereal place, naive and exposed – a place no less unsettling than Rid Of Me.
Reminding us that many of her songs were composed first with a drum machine, she switches it on to draw from 1998's excellent Is This Desire? in precise, one-man-band renditions on guitar and synth. She manages to convey the brooding envy of "Electric Light" even when the drum machine breaks down and she's left with just a cymbal and a synth tone – a poetic reminder of the searing solitude conveyed by much of her work. The darkness of Harvey's subject matter is in stark contrast to her presence – she is light, chatty, almost quaint and old-fashioned in her south-west accent: "I work with analogue equipment and have to accept that sometimes they just don't work when you turn them on – like most human beings really."
The night seems to have been comprised of Harvey's own personal favourites and it's a treat. Finishing on the piano, "Silence" is the highlight of the evening. A light ballad wistfully hoping a lover would miraculously appear finally bursts into an absolutely gorgeous chorus, her satiny vocals belting out "Silence". A heartstopping introduction to her new album; stunning.
PJ Harvey's new album, White Chalk, is out now