This review originally ran in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on Tuesday 6th September 2011.
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, September 4th 2011
At one point during this extraordinary performance by Polly Jean Harvey, a heckler attempted to lighten the mood by hollering “Welcome to Glasgow, PJ!” There came no response from the stage, however – black as death and twice as solemn – as Harvey traversed the war-despoiled terrain of her latest album, Let England Shake.
Our heroine’s ebony headdress and shawls were befitting of a body of work that examines Albion’s heritage and bloody conflicts, and Harvey’s dearth of interaction heightened its dramatic impact. Any inter-song banter (or heckler rejoinders) would have seemed inapt within this frame of orphaned children, dismembered limbs and “the grey, damp filthiness of ages”.
That is not to say it was mirthless – the album’s lyrical carnage is shot through with aural gallows humour – as testified by sunny hand-claps, droll backing vocals, rockabilly hooks, reggae beats and a bugle: England shaking, indeed.
Positioned some distance from a vintage band comprising ex-Bad Seed Mick Harvey (no relation), long-time collaborator John Parish and drummer Jean-Marc Butty, she at once objectified her male rock unit (do not overlook her quiet revolutions) and ensured the spotlight rarely deserted her keening vocals and pastoral-rock entreaties.
Cradling an autoharp like a dying lover, Harvey’s stark performance was thrilling – from the falsetto rock‘n’roll of On Battleship Hill, to the tilling groove of The Glorious Land, via bygone favourites like the unlikely infanticide chart-hit Down by the Water, which served to remind that Harvey’s range of voices is unprecedented.
Two standing ovations and then she left, the plumes in her circlet catching the light like a victory laurel, a mourning wreath and a fitting crown for an insurgent rock sovereign. Long live our gracious queen.
PJ Harvey won this year’s Mercury Music Prize last night, for her incredible album Let England Shake. I gave the album five stars in The List magazine at the start of the year.