Edinburgh Nights: Sex and death to make men quail

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PJ Harvey, The Jaffa Cake

FOR A FEMALE SINGER one might describe as the banshee of sex, it seems wholly appropriate that Polly Jean Harvey is wearing an outfit to die for. Every inch the Pradaist, she stalks on to the stage in a sleek black skirt, a skimpy red top and a pair of heels so severe they seem to have been spot welded rather than cobbled.

It's been five years since Harvey defined a new pop voice for the Nineties, the grumpy young woman. Partly thanks to the musical strength of the dynasty she founded, and partly because editors believed they could plaster these fiercely individual, attractive women across their pages conscience-free, the likes of Bjork (with whom Harvey memorably duetted at the Brit Awards a few years ago), Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Jewel and Shirley Manson seem to have succeeded that now-pathetic figure, the rock 'n' roll male.

PJ Harvey forged this new identity first, however, and still sings its delights and its pitfalls loudest. The melodramatic sense of mortality that undercuts her thundering explorations of desire is instantly apparent. Before she even takes to the cramped stage, her group strikes up a dirge jazzy enough to grace the wildest New Orleans' funeral. The equation may be simple, even obvious, but Harvey can find countless ways of making sex and death add up. Her voice, for a start, dominates the audience as much as it leads her music: now lilting, now cacophonous but never something over which she has less than complete control.

Perhaps that's why there's a lot of nervous-looking men in the audience. Harvey may alternate between grovelling submission("A woman who dreams of torture on the wheel") and imperious self-control ("The beauty of her under electric lights / Tears my heart out every time"), but neither disposition is the sort of quality you'd look for in your next girlfriend.

The selection from her albums, Dry, Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love, is no less monumental. Whether it's Perfect Day or Meet Ze Monsta, each sounds as if it's been hewn from passages of sound larger and more complex.

It's a relief to hear Harvey is quite aware of the bombastic element in her brand of libidinous gothic. This particu- lar rocker seems to deal with the unspecified talents of a 'big, black masseur'. I may be wrong, but I hope not.