An Edwardian angel of death glides onto the Troxy stage, feather headdress bobbing, widow’s weeds swishing, leather tightly binding a bird-like chest. PJ Harvey’s captive audience whips itself into a frenzy of earnest fandom at odds with the singer’s sombre exterior. “Polly, you look wonderful!” they burst out, ejaculations met with disapproving shushes from embarrassed grown-ups. And grown-up is the tone of the evening. Harvey tackles the none-more-serious topics of war and nationhood on her acclaimed new record, ‘Let England Shake’, which makes up the bulk of tonight’s set. Her new higher register marries well with the thorny subject matter as she wavers between control and hysteria like a rock & roll Hecuba, twisted and vulnerable. But you’d think wearing half a bird of prey as a hat while strumming an autoharp in an East End bingo hall would suggest a playful sense of theatricality, perhaps? Nope, we get barely a word. Harvey’s static, almost functional performance and the makeshift atmosphere of the Troxy (Sunday afternoon’s roast dinner is wafting round) weaken the emotional punch, with the exception of ‘England’, a haunting hymn to a nation that never really existed.
By Chal Ravens
Originally published in issue 26 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2011