When Polly Jean Harvey graces the stage of London’s Brixton Academy, it’s without the pomp or fanfare one might expect from one of rock’s most critically-adored stars. Walking in single file, a marching band emerges on stage, Harvey nestled among them, humbly making her way to centre stage for opening track ‘Chain of Keys’. It’s an unusual choice for a show opener, one of the more subdued tracks from her latest album The Hope Six Demolition Project, and though a more rambunctious track like ‘The Wheel’ or ‘Community of Hope’ might have felt like a more fitting beginning to this utterly enthralling show, this is nonetheless a gripping introduction to Harvey’s brand of politically charged songwriting.
A saxophone in one hand, Harvey exudes a quiet theatricality, gesticulating at the space around her through songs about dying refugees and children playing in human shit, as though she is reliving the horrors she witnessed during her travels that inspired the album. Backed by keys, saxophones, drums and guitars, Harvey’s sound is as hard-hitting as her lyrics, her voice at times low and gravelly, at others high-pitched and witch-like as she intersperses the rockier sound of her latest album with more delicate, funereal tracks from 2007’s White Chalk. Tracks from 2011’s seminal Let England Shake also get an airing, drawing huge cheers from the crowd – and surely Harvey is one of very few artists whose more recent work inspires the same level of adoration as her earlier tracks.
Though the focus remains on the political commentary of Harvey’s later albums, fan favourites ’50ft Queenie’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (a Bob Dylan cover) and ‘To Bring You My Love’ are also greeted with rapturous enthusiasm. Signature hit ‘Down By The Water’ provides arguably the highlight of the night, Harvey’s brutal tale of infanticide having lost none of its edge in the twenty-one years since its release.
Harvey remains silent between songs, but holds nothing back in her raw, passionate performance. It feels strangely obscene to be singing along to lines about desperate families eating horse’s hooves and decapitated soldiers blown to bits by bombs, but the macabre lyrics can’t detract from Harvey’s impeccable knack for writing an irresistible tune. As she moves around the stage, at times restrained and graceful, at others desperate and spider-like in her black dress slashed at both sides, it’s impossible not to become entirely gripped by Harvey’s utterly engrossing, spellbinding show.
PJ Harvey is a rare talent, an incredible musician and mesmerising performer. As she takes a bow at the end of her final song, ‘Is This Desire’, Brixton Academy is deafening with the sound of cheers. Harvey breaks her silence to offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’, and then she’s gone, leaving the crowd begging for more behind her.