PJ Harvey Troubles the Water

Stubb’s sell-out offers little hope yet God-like force

The black flag backdrop illuminated a goat-headed animal negotiating with a two-headed dog, possibly interpreted as mythological creatures Chimera, omen of disaster, and Cerberus, hound of Hades, respectively. If the writing was on the wall for Polly Jean Harvey’s sold-out show at Stubb’s Friday night, the suggestion was clear. So was the message:

A glorious funeral service for the collective soul of the human race.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Last seen locally at SXSW 2009 with John Parish for that year’s collaboration A Woman a Man Walked By, the rarely glimpsed live performer returned in service of last spring’s ninth studio LP The Hope Six Demolition Project, which documented, in large part, U.S. public housing. The 90-minute seance thus began with the slow procession of a military-styled tenpiece. All wore black, the performance’s natural theatre and inherent dramatics otherworldly.

Tar-black and feathered, the English singer, 47, portrayed the raven as a bird of carrion, conferring metaphorical lost souls while holding her saxophone like a weapon as the ensemble launched “Chain of Keys.” A problematic project laying bare larger societal ills, most everything that followed exposed hopelessness and despair, Harvey drawing them into the light without solutions. As she charged through the controversial and somewhat shortsighted “The Community of Hope,” it became clear that presentation as medium is her answer.

Hopelessness, perhaps, is the finality.

“The Ministry of Defence” rambled forward as a Russian/Turkish/Eastern European gypsy blend, but straightened up along a spine full of horns and punchy double drum kicks. “All my words get swallowed in the rear view glass,” she sang on “Dollar Dollar,” arms waving and swirling in purposeful choreography. As she did often, Harvey fell back in ceding the spotlight to brass.

Precision performance, the lighting beamed specific, pulling individual silhouettes to the fore.

On “The Wheel,” inspired by war in Kosovo, her full enunciation and clarity came off unnerving: “A revolving wheel of metal chairs/ Hung on chains, squealing/ Four little children flying out.” The song concluded with the band imitating a wheel, each instrumentalist acting as a spoke coming inward and then playing out the remainder of the song facing toward one another. Tied to the lyrics, it proved deeply affecting.

Rays of hope arrived in Harvey’s popular early hits, particularly a booming and propulsive iteration of “50ft Queenie” from 1993’s Rid of Me, a near-classic album turned essential through the passage of time. “To Bring You My Love” likewise played hauntingly, the singer’s wistfulness finding its way through her gale force wind piping. 2011’s Let England Shake, arguably her best work, got some shine as well via punishing versions of the title track and the groovy “The Words That Maketh Murder.”

She closed largely with Hope Six, going back to her elucidation of unfettered doom and destruction, perhaps of humans by their own hands. “What will become of us?” asked the entire band in unison. “Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water” they then responded, everyone onstage joining together in the middle – a wall of inescapable bleakness.

To PJ Harvey, “God’s gonna trouble the water” with all of us trapped unconnected on the shore. Societal problems are a genocidal signpost of an end that’s long arrived, humans as frogs being slowly boiled by our own hand.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

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More PJ Harvey
Phases & Stages
PJ Harvey
The Hope Six Demolition Project (Record Review)

Neph Basedow, Aug. 12, 2016

Phases & Stages
PJ Harvey
Let England Shake (Record Review)

Audra Schroeder, March 4, 2011

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PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project, Rid of Me, Let England Shake, A Woman a Man Walked By, John Parish, Chimera, Cerberus

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