Tuesday, April 19
Better than: Anything else.
Like PJ Harvey’s other work, her new album Let England Shake is about longing. But she confronts something different than the sexual want she sang so explicitly about on her erlier records–here, instead, the desire is for a world not marred by bleakness and death, by the spectre of constant war and an empire in decline. The lyrical imagery employed on the album triggers visions of landscapes of endless gray and sepia, with the occasional bloodstain from a human providing the only shock of color; the often-sparse music only adds to the bleakly dreamlike atmosphere.
It was hard going in to not be nervous about how the material from Let England Shake, which was composed largely on autoharps and can sound as delicate as aged lace even when Harvey sings of soldiers’ bodies being turned into carcasses, would fare in the wide-open space of Terminal 5. Mentioning the venue’s name never fails to bring to mind Nine Inch Nails’ video for “Wish,” with everything amped up past its normal breaking point and the crowd exceptionally aggro after trucking so many blocks west from the subway. But about 10 minutes before the show actually started, the lights flickered and people started shushing one another–the first sign that this crowd was probably full of fans with similar trepidations about the marriage of venue and material.
Harvey–dressed in a deliberately rumpled yet grand white dress, black tights and boots, and a headdress of ebony feathers–opened the show with a slightly quicker version of Shake‘s title track, which draws part of its melodic inspiration from the standard “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” (Snatches of other songs–“Summertime Blues,” “Blood and Fire”–are all over Shake, which only adds to its sometimes-overpowering feeling of longing.) From there, she commanded the audience’s attention, leaning into the instruments she was playing as if they were her children in need of protection, her gown shimmering under the spotlight trained on her while she stood alone on the right side of the stage. The three members of her impeccably precise band, meanwhile, were gathered stage left; she would sometimes step back into the shadows as songs were introduced, only nearing the microphone when the time was right.
Tuesday night’s setlist included all of Let England Shake, and the older cuts selected for the set (“The Devil,” “Angelene,” “Pocket Knife”) had a similar gritted-teeth feel about them. The strength running throughout Harvey’s work since the Dry days has been drawn from her desire to speak up, whether it’s about her sexual agency or her horror at the current state of the union; that she could command a crowd with such grim imagery and slyly phrased forthrightness is a testament to both her artistry and her impeccable talent as a performer. Even when playing a relatively low-energy song like Shake‘s “The Last Living Rose,” she served as a lightning rod, a woman who by mere force of her presence could make even the most potentially distracted New York crowd stand agape.
Harvey’s voice–which ranges from a soul-plumbing alto to a high-pitched, itch-inducing yowl–was the star of the evening, although she didn’t use it to address the crowd directly until returning for the three-song encore, at which she was given a huge ovation. That reverence (which, recall, inspired people to turn on their librarian impressions at the evening’s outset) probably reached its peak after Harvey and her backing band had gone offstage following the three-song encore. The adulation that followed–an attempt to create a tidal pull of goodwill that would lure the musicians out from behind the curtain–lasted for a good 15 minutes, with many people not leaving their spots; it only came to a close when the stagehands came out and placed black cloths over the pedals and instruments still strewn around the stage.
Critical bias: My awe and admiration for PJ Harvey far outweighs how much I usually detest shows at Terminal 5.
Overheard: “I WILL GIVE YOU MY FIRSTBORN CHILD IF YOU PLAY ‘RID OF ME.’ ” (She didn’t.)
Random notebook dump: Why did no one forcibly remove the guy who at one point yelled “NICK CAVE!!!”? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been bumping Grinderman 2 a bunch this week, but how rude.
Let England Shake
The Words That Maketh Murder
All And Everyone
The Big Guns Called Me Back Again
Written On The Forehead
In The Dark Places
The Sky Lit Up
The Glorious Land
The Last Living Rose
Down By The Water
Hanging In The Wire
On Battleship Hill
The Colour Of The Earth
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 2011