From the shadows, a marching band emerges from stage left, bearing snares and saxophones. Among their number is Polly Jean Harvey, ethereal in black, striding solemnly towards the microphone as the cavernous and suitably regal Playhouse falls into a reverent trance before her.
A brutal, modernist backdrop evokes Orwellian menace as cuts from her 2016 release The Hope Six Demolition Project dominate the first part of the set. There is no self-indulgence or preaching in Harvey’s social commentary, she remains a strict witness, offering powerful observations (“Broken glass, a white jawbone”) from her time in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, DC. No pale imitation of the begging child in Dollar, Dollar’s despair is attempted – her voice is that of a distant, respectful narrator.
The thunderous drama of The Ministry of Defence is an early highlight, as her entirely male 9-piece band (boasting the familiar faces of former Bad Seed Mick Harvey and long-time collaborator John Parish) excel at grand, bombastic and meticulous theatricality. Particularly pleasing is the contrast of Harvey’s wildly expressive voice and their deep, soulful chanting – transcendent in main set closer River Anacostia.
Harvey is an artist of constant reinvention, and delves deep into her rich and diverse back catalogue. 50ft Queenie is a burst of ferocity and swagger the stage can barely contain, as visceral, sexy and overpowering as it was upon release over two decades ago. The stark intimacy of When Under Ether haunts every crevice of the Playhouse, while the understated, sensual crawl of Is This Desire? leaves the audience breathless. To Bring You My Love is spine tingling, as the raw power of a voice that has captivated everyone from Kurt Cobain to Captain Beefheart is fully unleashed.
In this masterful performance, Harvey embodies the mystique sorely missing from contemporary music. She is out of reach, elusive, sophisticated, impossible to predict – and her songs and persona are arguably purer and more potent because of it. The light show is minimal, and Polly Jean slips in and out of the darkness with complete control.
Words: Fraser MacIntyre
PJ Harvey, The Playhouse, Aug 7-8, 8pm