I don’t mean to suggest “Let England Shake” is anything other than excellent, but I can’t help thinking that one supplementary reason why PJ Harvey’s latest album has had such laudatory reviews (better, mostly, than the equally good “White Chalk”) is that offers journalists so much to write about. “Let England Shake” is so full of imagery, content, allusion, it offers up boundless possibilities of meaning. Reductively, it has been called a protest album. Expansively, you can parse (or, maybe, project on) it for all manner of ideas about war and nationality.
The same goes for Harvey’s show at the Troxy in London last night. Her band – Jean-Marc Butty on drums, Mick Harvey and John Parish peregrinating between various keyboards and guitars – are decked out like gentleman soldiers from a distant England (and Australia, of course), all waistcoats, faintly military greatcoats and, in the case of Butty, ostentatious riding boots.
Harvey, meanwhile, stays far away on the other side of the stage, a ghostly presence in white (the night before: black) and with a headdress of black feathers swept back like antlers, or a halo of sorts. Tempted into fishing for meaning in the costumes and set-up, you could see her as a kind of angel/spirit/embodiment of Britannia, hovering in the vicinity of doomed men. Celestial allusions are enhanced by the fact she’s playing a harp, after a fashion, but it is of course an autoharp – something a little crankier and less pure, all told.
Not for the first time live, Harvey has that weird, inscrutable half-smile for much of the show, which as usual suggests some sort of imperious detachment, and also suppressed nerves. Typically, again, everything that happens in the ensuing 90 minutes seems to be meticulously thought-out and orchestrated (save a brief false start for “The Devil”). This is the latest self-contained, entirely plotted Harvey project brought to fruition, with a handful of old songs selected for thematic and instrumental congruity.
The set-up tonight involves a lot of semi-sepulchral keyboards (on sturdy old wooden tables), guitars, hardly any bass, and those unnerving samples that are deployed with such spare, judicious effect on “Let England Shake”: “Blood And Fire”; the battlefield bugle; the Kurdish wail that threads through a sensational “England”, with Butty at the front of the stage, an outsized drummer boy in an unforgiving spotlight.
These are silvery, brittle, unsteady songs, but ones that are clearly strong enough to stick around: “The Words That Maketh Murder”, “All And Everyone”, “In The Dark Places”, “On Battleship Hill”, all great. Live, the perceived folkishness of this music is hard to spot. Instead, Harvey seems to have shot for an idiosyncratic re-imagining of the past, generating an atmosphere with new tools, rather than an actual recreation. A bit like steampunk, only aesthetically satisying, perhaps.
For me, though, the highlight of the “Let England Shake” songs is unexpected – “Colour Of The Earth”, as much Mick Harvey’s lead as hers, and an ineffably moving moment where the soldiers and victims that populate the songs are given a voice, rather than observed mournfully from a distance.
“The Last Living Rose”, with Harvey on guitar, provides something of a throwback to her earliest, stentorian songs. Nothing from those first two albums makes the cut here, though. “Down By The Water”, “C’Mon Billy” and an encore snarl through “Meet Ze Monsta” are imported from “To Bring You My Love”; “Big Exit” comes from “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea”; “The Pocket Knife” from Uh-Huh-Her.
Better yet, there are a couple each from “Is This Desire” and “White Chalk”. The encore begins with that heavier “Meet Ze Monsta”, and initially seems to be providing a meaty coda to the more ethereal proceedings of the main set. But then she shifts gear into two of her greatest songs (I think); “Angelene” and “Silence”. The latter, especially, is tremendous, Harvey’s voice, strong and clear, rising above the rough-hewn harmonies of her bandmates, perfectly in control.
Part of me wishes that her next impeccably-conceived project might find her synthesising a kind of looseness, even abandon. But in the face of such formal brilliance, it seems churlish to complain.
Anyone else there?
LET ENGLAND SHAKE
THE WORDS THAT MAKETH MURDER
ALL & EVERYONE
THE GUNS CALLED ME…
WRITTEN ON THE FOREHEAD
IN THE DARK PLACES
SKY LIT UP
THE GLORIOUS LAND
THE LAST LIVING ROSE
THE POCKET KNIFE
DOWN BY THE WATER
HANGING IN THE WIRE
ON BATTLESHIP HILL
THE COLOUR OF THE EARTH
MEET ZE MONSTA