There she stands, an Amazon among mortals, Ms. Polly Jean Harvey.
She’s mean and bad and distant. Slinky and lean in a bright orange dress cut perfectly in jagged lines, she conjures images of Horses-era Patti Smith and Bjork. But forget the comparisons. They’re awkward and inadequate pointers, an attempt to describe an indescribable, and intensely personal, magnetism.
PJ Harvey stands alien from the rest of us. She approaches the microphone like an animated dominatrix approaches a gagged, submissive partner: pure performer, all strut and cock, in command.
Touring on her seventh record, Uh Huh Her, with a string of critically acclaimed (and financially solvent) releases behind her, Ms. Harvey is a woman with nothing to prove. By the end of the 1990s, a decade which hosted the “modern rock” radio phenomenon and the Pacific Northwest “better to burn out” grunge implosion, Ms. Harvey had four successful records on her hands: Dry, Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, and Is This Desire?. With her image as a critically-acclaimed artist (and as a woman burning with rage and lust and integrity) cemented firmly in the pop culture consciousness, the question for a 21st century PJ Harvey must, in part, become how to both sustain and assuage the inner critic.
There she stands, gorgeous, controlled, and potent, a rare woman in this business called music, a woman you can count on. She doesn’t pose for Maxim, doesn’t take her demos to the Matrix for cotton-candy reinvention, doesn’t cater to or coddle her audience.
But when confronted with Ms. Harvey live, in a 1,000-seat venue reasonable enough to walk up to the stage and peer closely, her band’s energy is paradoxical. Here, on stage, one of the strongest women on the rock ‘n’ roll circuit at present (which inherently—like it or not—makes her a patriarchy-buster) stands surrounded by self-indulgent men with faux-hawks. Their large physical presence and even larger, louder guitars/attitudes are steeped so thickly in rock ‘n’ roll juice that their auras actually threaten to obscure Ms. Harvey’s stage presence.
There is no doubt that I am witnessing a ROCK show. Known to write, perform, and record every instrument herself in the recording studio, Ms. Harvey must tackle this challenge each time she tours—how to find the right combination of ego, talent, and personality to bring her recordings to life without transforming the material into an unrecognizable imprint.
This line-up (Harvey + a trio put together specifically for the Uh Huh Her tour) veers at times into the thick, dark waters of heavy metal. The sound is incongruous with some of Ms. Harvey’s later recorded material, and the image that she projects is that of a complex chameleon. It feels as if the band is performing songs that will most fit their sound, rather than the other way round.
Consistency from song to song is something of a disappointment. The earnestness with which the band delivers the string of sameness lands with a thud—over-confident and safe, lacking experiment and risk. This is a show—not uncommon in the business of live music—where every note feels rehearsed, every moment sculpted. The band has a set ingrained, never deviating from the master plan. Ms. Harvey does not speak to the audience. Not once.
All of which is odd, because www.pjharvey.net touts a touring band that shakes up the setlist every night, performing well-chosen covers—for instance, in Los Angeles Harvey performed The Fall’s “Janet vs. Johnny” in dedication to John Peel. But there are no covers in Portland, no such spontaneity. The band opens with “Fountain”, the low-key, second-to-last track from Harvey’s first album, Dry. For fans in the audience longing to hear the early material that introduced them to Harvey, this early reference is a good sign. They cheer enthusiastically.
The set list is peppered with two more tracks from Dry (“Dress” and “Victory”—the former being an early single embraced by the masses), two tunes from Rid of Me (the bluesy stompers “Me-Jane” and “50ft Queenie”) and “Meet Ze Monsta” from To Bring You My Love. The remainder of the set consists of material mostly from Uh Huh Her and Is This Love?—with 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea surprisingly under-represented—three tracks are all we get: “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore”, “Big Exit”, and “Horses in My Dreams”.
Talking with friends who caught the tour in other cities (Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles), we compare notes. Was it me, or did the band sound too heavy? Was it me, or did the heavily masculine chemistry on stage take something away from the overwhelming persona known as Ms. Polly Jean Harvey? Compelling live shows are elusive—so many factors influence how any one person experiences music. What does the venue feel like? Is the artist engaging the audience? Have I had enough to drink? Too much to drink?
Having said all that, tonight the show is perfunctory, and impersonal. The crowd seems content, but hardly overwhelmed.
We leave, having been graced with the presence of a fine artist, one with whom we have a long relationship, one we’re likely to continue pursuing. But here’s hoping that Ms. Harvey’s next Portland appearance offers something surprising, unexpected, and even spontaneous. She has never submitted her voice and verve to dilution or compromise, nor is she doing that now. But perhaps it’s time to push even harder, to be certain that mediocrity does not replace consistency.