Polly Jean Harvey strides onto The Other Stage to the march of a military drumbeat and wearing a crown of crow’s feathers. Throughout her hour-long set, she’s a resplendent, regally-detached figure, her only interactions with the crowd coming in the form of curt nods of the head; it’s a whole 40 minutes into the set, when her saxophonist outdoes himself during the solo of ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’, that she finally deigns to crack so much as a smile. When she does open her mouth to speak, however, it’s to deliver the weekend’s most poignant – and most powerful – comment on Brexit.
“No man is an island entire of itself,” she begins, reading John Donne’s 1624 poem from a printed sheet of paper. “Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.” It was Harvey who declared ‘Let England Shake’ back in 2011, and these are prescient words to keep in mind as we muddle through the aftershock in the months and years ahead. As she leads her band straight into ‘The Glorious Land’, she provides even more food for thought on this most tumultuous weekend: “What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children.” Still feeling good about that whole ‘Taking Our Contry Back’ business, Brexiteers?
The set draws heavily from songs off new album ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, many of which contain appropriately-doomy portents of their own – “Scratched in the wall in biro pen/ This is how the world will end” goes ‘The Ministry of Defence’ – interspersed with old favourites like the the swaggering garage-blues of ’50ft Queenie’ or ‘To Bring You My Love’. In truth, however, this performance would have been momentous enough without the referendum lending it an even greater urgency: this is Harvey’s first appearance at the festival since 2004, and while the crowd is a little on the thin side, her presence alone – as alien and otherworldly and completely captivating as ever – makes it feel like a genuine event.
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