PJ Harvey, Troxy, London

Won over by the battles of Britain
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Polly Harvey's new album is only her second to make the Top 10, and it has been 18 years since the first. The reason Let England Shake has sold so well for this enduring individualist with a commendable sense of endeavour and experiment, but who all too often sells far too few records, is that it has struck a huge chord. In one sense this is literally, for it features her extensive use of the autoharp and its swishing, jangling soundbed, amid an insistent but ethereal sound-palette. But even more resonant is its subject matter, a meditation on the muddy, bloody, banality of battle, her lyrics conjuring the carnage of the First World War Gallipoli campaign, with echoes down the years to today's military mire in Iraq.

So it is apt that as a solitary downlight picks out Harvey on her own, stage right, singing the title track of the album, she looks like nothing less than the jet-black antithesis of Winged Victory. Huge crow-like feathers billow from her skull as she thrums her autoharp, clasping it to her body as though it was a child in an air raid. Her musicians cluster on the other side of the stage: in sombre browns and greys, they sit on old church pews with their instruments on distressed, dark, wooden furniture.

The bulk of the gig is a pretty straight reading of the new album, with a smattering of songs from 2007's White Chalk, 1998's Is This Desire?, and a couple of others thrown in. For the most part, the old songs fit well with the new and their atmosphere of insistent gloom. But they often end abruptly, and too soon: they are about wallowing in mud, blood, and bones, and their contemplative, hypnotic nature begs for a more indulgent live treatment. Harvey also says nothing to the audience for most of the concert. There are times that you want her to blast through the fourth wall that she and her troops are behind.

The tempo seriously picks up nine songs in, with "Sky Lit Up" from Is This Desire?, as Polly bashes her electric guitar and slips into a falsetto-like vocal feedback. By the time she gets to "England", from the new collection, she is singing like a bewildered Edwardian child. At other times she has the manner of the Bride of Frankenstein in those few moments before Elsa Lanchester goes bananas – she is a compelling performer, one of those charismatic souls who always seems mesmerisingly on the edge. And yet it's clear she is enjoying herself hugely. When she finally does speak, after the pummelling, bastardised "All Day and All of the Night" riff of "Meet Ze Monsta" with which she opens her encore, it is with a warmth that is touching and that makes you wish she had done it earlier.

But who can really complain? Harvey does what she does and thank heavens for that. This is music to which people will be listening in 100 years' time because it tries to tell us something about the human condition, and to offer a window into the soul of its time. It may not be a pleasant view, but Polly Harvey provides it with a spellbinding soundtrack.