PJ Harvey’s infinite (well, fine, 10-piece, including herself, on vocals and sax) band came on stage at New York’s Terminal 5 on Tuesday night in a war march — snare drums, and more snare drums, first, then an advancing wall of saxophones, on the Hope Six Demolition Project track “A Chain of Keys.” It’s a song in which Harvey sings of a Kosovar woman holding 15 keys that lead only to houses where “the neighbors won’t be coming back,” with the musician trying to imagine “what her eyes have seen,” noting that she and her traveling companion, war photographer Seamus Murphy, “ask but she won’t let [them] in.” The song — like many others on the album — describes a tiny, journalistic moment of observation with all the apocalyptic robustness and flair of a processional of soldiers heading into battle with brass instruments.
The concert sounded exquisite: Harvey’s voice was arrestingly clear and nimble, and the large band (including long-time collaborator John Parish and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey), filling the stage with their massive, bombastic instruments, were, with the exception of muddled sounding “A Line in the Sand,” virtuosically chaotic. Harvey presented a winning trio of old favorites in succession — a vital rendition of “To Bring You My Love” (she can still do gravelly and swampy when she wants), “Down by the Water” and “50 Ft Queenie.” Yet this was a rare instance where the dramatic flair and completeness of a show actually damaged the conceptual life of the work.
One of the main ingredients that kept her recent album only on the precipice of — but not over the line of — irksome self-seriousness was a tone of neutrality, capturing the perceptive limitations of the observer of foreign crises: Harvey’s album documented weeks she spent across Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington, D.C. (with a focus, there, on the predominantly black neighborhood of Anacostia). Tracks that seemed declarative were underlain with a sense of uncertainty and remove — and that made for an endlessly complex album. The raucous vitality of the live show, coupled with interpretive pantomime-like movement from Harvey, essentially removed the remove, turning these into true protest songs — and, with their lyrics about observations almost solely from the surfaces from these places, they don’t work as well as such.
What made much of the album conceptually compelling was that beyond the explosive direness of the instrumentation and Harvey’s lyrical gloom, her delivery of the words was nearly as estranged from the gravity of it all as on her previous WWI-centric album, Let England Shake. In “A Line in the Sand,” Harvey repeats the words of a worker at a refugee camp in upbeat staccato, “I saw a displaced family/Eating a cold horse’s hoof” and then, in an emptily sing-song echo, “Oh, a cold horse’s hoof.”
Live, however, while Harvey’s voice maintained the tone of the album, her body had a different approach to the work. Because for much of the show she was unfettered from an instrument (she played the sax, but unlike with the autoharp for Let England Shake, the piano for White Chalk or the guitar for her earlier albums, it only occasionally commanded her movement), she chose to use gesture as another instrument, and this was a misstep. On that line, “a cold horse’s hoof,” she clutched the invisible hoof in her hand, looking down at it somberly.
In “Dollar Dollar,” whose chorus is the eerily light and airy delivery of the mantra of a begging child in Afghanistan, Harvey describes seeing the boy through the glass of her car; suspended by horns that now sound foggy and almost heavenly, it’s like she’s ascending back towards her own more comfortable reality as the boy disappears in the car’s mirror glass back into his. It’s one of the album’s most honest moments, not because it offers a solution, but because it merely depicts — after so many attempts at observation and understanding — the opposing forces of empathy and the overarching disconnect of a tourist in a vastly class stratified world.
But live, for instance on the line “I turn to you and ask for something we can offer,” Harvey actually turned, hand outstretched, to her side, as though concernedly asking the person next to her in her car for change to give the boy. On the line, “In the mirror glass/face pock-marked and hollow,” she drew out a mirror-glass with her hand, as though really trying to hammer in the poignancy and tragedy of the moment. I longed for the same emotional opacity in what she was doing with her body as what she was doing with her voice: but instead, she seemed intent on painting a very clean picture of someone concernedly and deeply interfacing with these cultures and their hardships, which rang false with the lyrics that don’t live up to that. The content she was singing seemed to be in part about the limitations of observational/journalistic/touristic sympathy; and if it’s not supposed to be about those limitations, it risks seeming naive. Naivety is something that I highly doubt applies to arguably one of the best working songwriters. Oddly, something as small as a series of interpretive gestures cast a large shadow over interpretation.
There’s proof on the album of its own self-aware toying with the failings of statistics on and perceptions of global suffering: On “The Wheel,” a standout on the album, but especially live, with its roomy, brass-punctuated intro and outro, Harvey sings in near-neutral of the juxtaposition between children disappearing around the bend of a spinning carnival ride and a “tableau of the missing” from the Kosovo war on a government building, matter-of-factly commanding “hey little children don’t disappear” and concluding with the ceaseless, emotionally plateaued repetition of “and watch them fade out.” Her backing band, vocalizing a monolith of solemn baritone masculinity against Harvey’s mellifluous soprano (the furthest cry from “To Bring You My Love” imaginable), repeat, over and over, “I heard it was 28,000” — a totally opaque statistic that could mean virtually anything.
On “Community of Hope” — a song that sparked controversy, despite the song’s clear second-degree commentary — she turns a seeming found poem of the reductive words of a tour guide about Anacostia into an odd, perspective-blurring folksy power ballad. The lyrics “Here’s the Hope Six Demolition Project/Stretching down to Benning Road/A well-known ‘pathway of death’/At least that’s what I’m told” emphasize the words of a tour-guide (perhaps a mash-up of reporter Paul Schwartzman and others) simply regurgitating what he, himself has been told.
From the beginning, the album seemed a collection of stray conclusions, statistics, and surface observations, like the rubble — “a kitchen knife,” “human shit,” “a plastic spoon” — surrounding a dilapidated Ministry of Defense, in the song of the same name. On “Ministry of Defense,” Harvey’s voice is even led by a man acting as a tour guide. Though its thunderous guitar intro makes it seem like protest music, the actual lyrics can hardly be interpreted as such — as they encapsulate an elliptical list of sights rather than a statement. On the album, it feels like an honest portrayal of the emotional confusions of being an observer, of gathering news of tragedies (either from the news, or from an actual visit) from without, with Harvey once again being led by someone with their very own subjective take on a place.
But live, with her definitive, emotive gestures, and the weightiness of her massive backing band, Harvey incidentally became the tour-guide. The command of her body over the images, the triumph of the fantastic band over the sounds, made it all seem so much more self-assured, and thereby self-serious and objective. The stronger and more imposing the performance, the more it seemed to shake the conceptual strength of the album. Again I’ll state the oddity: this was an excellent concert whose immensity was detrimental to the powerful uncertainty of the album.
In my album review, I wrote against complaints about the album being unaware “poverty tourism,” after, say, Stereogum writer Tom Briehan wrote, “She’s not actually considering the humanity of the people who live there. It’s just another image of blight that looks right in her ‘global suffering’ scrapbook.” I’d said that it “sums up the familiar experience of the futility of reading, say, an article about strife, sympathizing from afar, then simply moving on into the rest of the day.” And I hold to it that I think the album is more a meditation on both empathy and its barriers — rather than an accidental perpetuation poverty tourism. But the live performance, in all its excellence and drama, brought it uncomfortably closer the territory of the latter.