PJ Harvey is the first artist to win the coveted Mercury Prize twice, and she's done it with a remarkable concept album about her homeland - and its wars abroad. Ben Thompson watched her debut the songs live last March--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
On the left of the Troxy stage stands PJ Harvey - enrobed in one of her Belgian fashion confederate Ann Demeulemeester's trademark pristine, shroud-like creations, topped off with the kind of extravagant black feathered head-dress which suggests a raven has recently made an emergency landing on her head.
To the right, amid a reassuring huddle of antique instruments, lurk Harvey's three-man backing band - her mentor-turned-helpmeet John Parish, composer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey (no relation), and a French drummer wearing brown leather riding-boots.
It would be wrong to say that never the twain shall meet, as PJ's fluttery, bird-like vocals and sinuous, muscular guitar-playing are beautifully integrated into her backing trio's intuitive musical backdrops. But it's the gap between them that gets this very special show's formidable sparks really flying.
There has always been an element of the dressing-up box in PJ Harvey's work, and her latest incarnation as a mournful inheritor/eulogist of Albion's warrior heritage - two parts Boadicea to three parts Wilfred Owen - is one of her most persuasive to date. And the brazen theatricality of her current persona as British pop's best-dressed war poet allows her to smuggle through a still more daring innovation.
Where her earlier records often recycled pre-existing rock mythology, PJ Harvey's new album Let England Shake employs direct musical quotation to startlingly original effect. 'The Glorious Land' somehow incorporates fragments of both a regimental trumpet and the Police's 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' into its stinging admonitory slap to Queen Victoria's imperial visage. And the exquisite Iraq War ballad 'Written On The Forehead' rests on the improbably sure foundation of Niney the Observer's '70s reggae classic 'Blood & Fire'.
It's absurdly thrilling to see John Parish activate this last sample in person, perhaps because at that moment the architecture and history of the music stands out in the same stark relief from its surroundings as the battlefield detritus which now scars Harvey's blasted lyrical landscape.
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Photo by Matt Kent/WireImage