PJ Harvey and John Parish
The Fillmore NY, Irving Plaza
Thursday March 26
Explaining why she had recently decided to jointly author a new album with her old-school muse and mentor John Parish, Polly Jean Harvey said that working with someone else allowed her to experiment without fear of ridicule. Not that creative self-shackling is something that the singer is exactly renowned for in her 17-year-solo career. From the aggressive sexuality of ‘Rid Of Me’ to the haunted Miss Havisham-esque figure she affected for her last record ‘White Chalk’, she has never been one to balk from a new part to play.
So the news that she has been embedded in the studio on a convention-smashing mission with Parish again (the first time the pair have co-written an album since 1996’s ‘Dancehall At Louse Point’, although Parish has played a more behind-the-scenes role on almost every PJ record since then) means that it would be no great eye-opener for the duo to be pushed on in a fish-tank with a 90-minute set of whale songs ready to go.
While the over-zealous Peej-aphiles (and, my, are they out in force tonight) would no doubt hail it a creative epiphany, the rest of us are relieved when the only thing characteristically unexpected about opening track and new single ‘Black-Hearted Love’ is how warmly familiar it sounds, a messy, grunge-pop murder ballad about the kind of feverish desire last felt back on ‘Songs From The City…’s ‘This Is Love’.
It would be up there amongst the five greatest songs she’d ever written were it not for the fact that, as on ‘…Louse Point’, Polly only contributed the lyrics to all the songs aired this evening, the music coming completely from Parish. And while it’s probably true that PJ has never actually barked like a dog onstage before, the (literally) show-stopping song she does it on (‘Pig Will Not’) is another natural successor, this time to ‘Taut’ – her and Parish’s previous co-write which also gets played to delirious scenes tonight.
There are moments of genuine novelty: the quivering, gnarled noise that creeps from PJ’s hand-covered mouth during ‘April’ – a voice that she herself has described as that of “a 100-year-old woman” that kept coming back to possess her whenever she tried to sing the song. But it’s when she breaks free of its grip and regains her full range that it becomes truly astonishing.
In fact, far from reinventing herself beyond recognition, it seems that what working so closely with Parish again has actually done is remind PJ of all the things she’s always done best.