Live Review: PJ Harvey

Troxy, London, Sunday 27th February

Call it an imperial hangover if you will, but no-one is quite as bum-wincingly uncomfortable with the idea of patriotism as the inhabitants of England’s green and pleasant land. It’s different in the US, of course. Americans are never more in their element than while waving miniature flags, butchering ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and naming suspect pieces of legislation after the dreaded ‘P’ word. For Englanders, however, ‘God Save The Queen’ just conjures up images of a weirdly silent Gary Neville and a muttered agreement that ‘Jerusalem’ would make a better anthem anyway. Make no mistake, then: [a]PJ Harvey[/a]’s decision to grapple with patriotism and the foreign fields on which it goes to die on [b]‘Let England Shake’[/b] was a brave one.

A brilliant weave of musical styles and narrative voices attempting to get to the bottom of just what it means to be sprung from our drizzle-soaked land, we might just as well call it a day and crown it album of the year already. As such, tonight at the [b]Troxy[/b] – the first of two sold-out shows in the capital – has the feel of a milestone in what is rapidly shaping up to be a career-defining year.

Backed with undertakers’ tact by former Bad Seed [b]Mick Harvey[/b], [b]Jean-Marc Butty[/b] and long-term collaborator [a]John Parish[/a], Harvey appears stage left in black feathered headdress, a vision from the Arthurian mists under cabaret spotlighting. When she starts crooning the new record’s title cut, she seems to grow in mythical stature again; mock-childishly intoning lines about how “[i]England’s dancing days are done[/i]” like some inscrutable crow queen portending evil to come. Perhaps she’s one of the birds that wheel ominously on the record’s cover — crows are sometimes said to circle battlefields in the hope of picking at carrion, and their association with death spans any number of cultures across the globe.

A whole raft of greatness from [b]‘Let England Shake’[/b] follows: [b]‘The Words That Maketh Murder’[/b]’s wicked reverie swims horribly into view like Banquo’s ghost as Harvey cradles her autoharp. [b]‘All & Everyone’[/b]’s lugubrious, secular gospel recalls [b]‘Spirit Of Eden’[/b]-era Talk Talk, morbid imagery unfurling like black tongues licking at the venue’s nethermost reaches. Recent B-side [b]‘The Big Guns Called Me Back Again’[/b] is cut from similarly quality cloth, a glimmering folk number that reeks of post-traumatic stress: “I hear voices singing, I hear the guns beginning”. [b]‘Written On The Forehead’[/b] is made to thump harder than on record by Jean-Marc Butty’s expansive deployment of bass drum.

It’s a trick which does nothing to detract from Harvey’s deeply strange, allegorical lyric, a thing worthy of Dylan in his ’70s prime — and yes, we are enjoying being able to toss around such comparisons with conscience relatively untroubled. [b]‘In The Dark Places’[/b] rounds out the initial volley of new songs, but in truth [b]‘The Devil’[/b] – culled the underrated [b]‘White Chalk’[/b] – slots in beautifully.

After that detour into the scary id places of Harvey’s psyche (plus a couple of oldies in [b]‘The River’[/b] and [b]‘The Sky Lit Up’[/b]) it’s back to reaping [b]‘Let England Shake’[/b]’s rich fruits, and a stunning trio of songs that leaves us with goosebumps in places we never even knew we could get ’em. First up is the roiling, shoegaze rock of [b]‘The Glorious Land’[/b], Harvey twisting her words with diabolical glee as the track builds to a gut-wrenching climax: “What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children”.

Then there’s [b]‘The Last Living Rose’[/b]’s deeply ambivalent ode, its brilliant imagery bookended by a bizarrely intuitive, ska-tinged sax solo, here rendered on keys. Most poignantly of all, ‘England’ begins with a naive festooning of “[i]la-la-laa[/i]”s from Harvey, as if she’s trying to tap into something childlike, delicately suggesting links between the twin pulls of nostalgia and patriotism. The mastery of the material here is total, the rendering enough to bring a tear to the eyes of the stoutest of anti-nationalist zealots.

Somewhat inevitably, intensity levels drop a little after that, as Harvey lets a little of her back catalogue’s light in on proceedings. Rawk-fuelled renderings of [b]‘Big Exit’[/b] and [b]‘Meet Ze Monsta’[/b] sound more than a touch awkward in view of her rococo latter-day guise, but then again, it only speaks to Harvey’s uniquely focused approach that such complaints feel valid. Of the older stuff, material from her quietly introspected [b]‘Is This Desire?’[/b] fares best; the aforementioned [b]‘The River’[/b] and especially [b]‘Angelene’[/b] provide welcome respite from the show’s heavier moments.

In the end it’s left to [b]‘Silence’[/b], a mere slip of a track from [b]‘White Chalk’[/b], to round out the show on a deeply mournful note. Then Harvey and her stellar company take their bow like a theatrical troupe — which is precisely what they are, in a way. Someone toss that girl a bouquet: Queen Harvey’s new show deserves to run and run.

Alex Denney

PJ Harvey’s – ‘Let England Shake’ album review