“I’ve always hated live shows, hated live albums, I wanted to do try and do this differently”
During the tour for her 2004 release Uh Huh Her, Polly Jean Harvey says she started to finally feel comfortable with being in control, despite being a worldwide rock ‘n’ roll icon for more than 12 years. It was the first time she felt comfortable enough to produce her own music exclusively, and Harvey’s filmed live performance debut highlights her newfound confidence: the disc bristles with all the excitement of actually seeing her in the flesh, while providing a unique insight into the process of the making of a record. More importantly, Please Leave Quietly chips away at the prickly veneer for which the singer has become so famous, offering a sharp insight into the singer’s personality, which was something of an enigma up until this point.
A stunning companion piece to her arsenal of music, this tour documentary is able to do what most artists can only dream about: it re-animates her back catalogue, re-invents her sound palette, and flaunts (in the most positive way) her skill and versatility not only as a singer, musician, and visual artist, but also as a businesswoman. It also presents a picture of Harvey as a true firebrand; in control of every aspect of her live show, right down to the advertisements posted in the venues she plays. Harvey even does her own hair and make-up and is ballsy enough to don performance costumes emblazoned with images of herself (to ensure that the cheekiness of this enterprise was not misunderstood as egomania, Harvey also wore a gown made of Spice Girls t-shirts and a skirt that featured a print of The Muppet Show’s Animal smiling maniacally across her ass).
Each set piece is culled into a collage from several performances during the tour, giving the proceedings a spontaneous, patchwork feeling. Early on in one of the behind-the-scenes vignettes, Harvey says that she wanted the performances to feel “ramshackle”. In accomplishing this, director Maria Mochnacz (also responsible for Uh Huh Her‘s artwork) captures the true spirit of touring in this documentary by filming not only the performances, but also the day-to-day grind of producing a live show, warts and all. We see the lights being set up, the sound checks and the pre-show rituals (which consist of Harvey repeatedly chanting the word “arrivederci” in her dressing room) in between the dynamic live clips that feature crisp, uncluttered arrangements. Absent from the proceedings is the ultra-glossy sheen of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, the darkly pulsating electronica of Is This Desire?.
Harvey and her crackerjack team of multi-instrumentalists (longtime collaborator Rob Ellis, alongside new band members Josh Klinghoffer and Dingo) pare down any of the former signs of studio polish in Harvey’s catalogue into sparse, tight, almost bluesy rock arrangements. The music animates into visceral life amidst the collage-like kaleidoscope of images. Harvey’s vocals are front and center: confrontational, wounded and booming. The disc’s opener, “Meet Ze Monsta” (from Harvey’s critically revered To Bring You My Love), sets the tone for what follows by featuring menacing guitars licks, the dirtiest bass lines you will hear all year, and the unmistakable punk swagger of petite Harvey, summoning her inner-most primal scream, wailing like a woman possessed. Capturing again and again the vitality and consistency of Harvey’s live show, the clips expertly span her 12-year career and include two unreleased B-sides: “Uh Huh Her” and “Evol”.
While every member of the crew interviewed claims to have an aversion to touring, the rough images and raw sound are clearly produced with love and care. What sets the actual performance apart from other discs of this kind is the unpolished grit that is able to shine through: Harvey’s vocals are sometimes off-key and some musical notes are played out of tune. By allowing her tour document to actually sound like a proper live show and not a slickly over-produced one-night stand, Harvey again proves herself as someone who is not hindered by musical vanity.
Throughout her career, Harvey has managed to remain more elusive than her contemporaries. While other immensely talented female artists who began to gain momentum in the early ‘90s (think Tori Amos and Bjork) have a tendency to over-explain their grand concepts, Harvey is of the school that prefers to give the material over to the listener for interpretation. While Amos and Bjork effusively release live footage and recordings that seems consumerist and oftentimes overly produced, Harvey makes it clear that she is running this show and would not compromise her rough aesthetic.
It is rare for Harvey to give proper interviews and even more rare for her to explain her vision. This is what makes the 28-minute interview portion of the disc such a diamond in the rough. Though the low budget footage that surrounds her monologue can be sometimes taxing, when Harvey is speaking, the audience is treated to the candid and intelligent wit of a musician and artist at the top of her game.
Harvey is often described as terribly serious, and Please Leave Quietly definitely puts an end to that nasty rumor as we see the softer side of this rock star: making fun of herself while trying to title her album, actually laughing during the live performance of her biggest single (“Down By the Water”), and doing shots of tequila with her band pre-show. What happens during this candid footage is indeed glorious: Harvey, soft-spoken, daffy and genuinely self-effacing, humanizes her icy persona in an endearing way that somehow adds to her mystique. She explores a new dimension to her already legendary reputation as a live-wire on stage while managing to simultaneously reveal a new side that is insightful, blowsy, and more than a bit nerdy.