With an enormous raven’s wing headdress and a blinding white gown, PJ Harvey looked like a film still of a Pagan wedding beset by Hitchcock’s birds. With that powerful stare and that miraculous voice coming from a real, live person, she hardly gave the impression of being at the mercy of anything. Or even of being a real, live person, come to think of it. Near the end of her second Terminal 5 set in two days, I finally decided she looked and carried herself most like a Norse valkyrie—a blinding vision selecting those who will fall in battle, carrying them to the great beyond. Or, just like a true rock star. The magnitude of Harvey’s presence is not to be underestimated. It could light up the West Side.
She stood cradling an auto harp on far stage left, her band of respectable older gentlemen sequestered in the opposite corner. It was a weird set-up, but it gave Harvey the room she needed to stalk and preen, moves that were strikingly some of the night’s biggest applause points. Avid crowd response to gestures and looks stood out because the crowd was overwhelmingly subdued and expectant. Harvey has remained relevant where most of her 90s alt-god peers haven’t because of an intense focus on her current creative impulse and an aloofness towards her hallowed past. She’s a peer in restlessness to a band like Radiohead in that way. (Her 2011 release is surely better than theirs.) But that in-the-now artistic spirit translated into a set where Let England Shake was played in its entirety along with precious little else. The show’s highlights were necessarily that album’s.
The set-opening sequence of “Let England Shake” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” were powerfully alive, not at all tripped up by the album’s digressions into sampled snippets (which were just piped in, disconnected, for the band to play over). “The Glorious Land”’s grotesque call and response—“What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is deformed children!”—had a stomping weight and sort of a perverse glee to it live. Ballads like “The Last Living Rose” were as low-key and gorgeous as expected, lifted by the fact that, God, she really does just open her mouth and sound like that. (We didn’t hear her speaking voice until she said “thank you” at the main set’s conclusion.) But a full room of people waiting for something else takes a toll, especially in a place like Terminal 5 which often feels like finding yourself in the general vicinity of a concert rather than being at one. Harvey is not a newbie basking in the glow of her Best New Music’ed debut, after all.
The glimpses into her back catalog, fleeting as they were, were at least a little thrilling. “C’mon Billy” still has desperate, creepy power (we were sadly robbed the previous night’s thrown crumb of “Down by the Water”). “The Pocket Knife” from Uh Huh Her was a deft, defiant inclusion from a generally minor record. “The Big Exit” from Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea led the encore with a high-tide of fan devotion (in a crowd that so wanted to be more devoted, still). Had she followed that with something visceral like “50 Ft. Queenie” the place would have ripped itself apart. Instead it was a still and pretty version of “Angelene,” beautiful and slightly deflating—the whole show’s dynamic in miniature. For me, the highlights were two intimate inclusions from the sublimely weird and haunting White Chalk. “The Devil” came early in the show and the jazzily rearranged “Silence” closed the encore. Let England Shake’s political anger is no doubt deeply felt, but it still feels as if it’s coming from a distance. It’s an acid tongued Op-ed, rather than a compulsively scribbled diary page. She gave us her brain when we wanted her guts.