With exposed wooden floor, subtle lighting and patiently waiting instruments, the stage was quiet and still, like a stagnant body of water which lies absent of life and devoid of life-giving oxygen. And then a whisper of air builds and quickly rises into a breeze which flows across the surface of water, stirring it into action and unleashing a chaotic clashing of waves which travel from one side to the other. In such a way the stage wakes to life in hushed reverie as PJ Harvey enters the concert hall. Suddenly the heart and soul of the stage unites in perfect harmony with her presence. The performer has arrived.
She does not rush, she is calm and at peace as she wafts across the stage in a lyrically inscribed Edwardian dress. Similar though to our surface agitated body of water which stretches away to unknown depths, there is a slight feeling of tension below the surface which takes several songs to dissipate as Harvey relaxes into the performance.
Harvey is a surprisingly energetic and warm performer, and while she stands alone on stage she does not feel lonely. Surrounded by an array of instruments (piano, acoustic and bass guitar, zither, keyboards, harmonica and percussion), a sprinkling of fairy lights and tiny animal figurines she casts a spell of ethereal beauty and dreamy creative energy, yet at the same time exudes a commanding strength of spirit. Her only other occasional stage companion throughout the evening was long time collaborator Mick Harvey who accompanied her on piano.
While the purpose of her visit to Australia was to showcase work from her latest album ‘White Chalk’, Harvey would not have disappointed long term fans as she drew widely from her extensive back catalogue of music. Highlights from Harvey’s early nineties albums included emotionally raw and passionate performances of Rid of Me, Bring You My Love, Down By the Water and Send His Love to Me. Her intense stage demeanour is absorbing as she brings poetic drama to her musical stories infused with anger, love, loss and desperate longing.
It is no surprise though that some of the best songs of the evening featured from one of my all time favourite albums, the 2000 release ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea’. Horses In My Dreams was delicately delivered, conjuring up an extraordinary sense of hopeful space and freedom. Big Exit was the perfect contrasting piece, a rough and raucous description of a dangerous and unstable future. From ‘Uh Huh Her’ the standout for me was The Desperate Kingdom of Love, a stark and sad tale of the personal journeys we make in the name of love.
Of course most of the evening was given over to material from White Chalk, and with this album PJ Harvey demonstrates her unwillingness to maintain the status quo artistically, she always looks to push herself further on to a new creative plain. This is especially clear with the incorporation of the piano into her repertoire – a new instrument for Harvey, and also her stripped back vocals which display a greater fragility and higher pitch than previous recordings. Title track White Chalk typifies the feel of the entire album which seems more grounded and natural than earlier work, exploring the organic connections which exist between people, places and the environment.
Grow, Grow, Grow raises questions of how love can be found and cared for, Silence offers a remembrance of the obliterating focus of love, When Under Ether travels to that unseen place where things are not as they seem, and The Mountain has us soaring above the world as we gaze down on the broken things that lay below. So much beauty radiated on this one evening in Brisbane that it is too difficult a task to separate the musical roses from the bountiful display on offer.
PJ Harvey is a rare talent who presents a dazzling range of styles and sounds. She is elegant and refined, yet unafraid to challenge musical categorisation and pre-conceived expectations of how a song should be arranged and the way it should make the listener feel. She is a true evolution in progress and we are fortunate indeed to be able to grow alongside her.