Words & Images by Andi Callen (All rights reserved)
Tonight, saw the return of PJ Harvey to Manchester after an absence of 7 years. Back in 2016 it was the cavernous Victoria Warehouse, this time it’s the wonderful Albert Hall, with two sold out shows. PJ’s got ahead of the curve this time. Where bands normally wait 20 years for the anniversary of an album’s release, before returning to play albums in full. This tour sees PJ play the brand new album, I Inside The Old Year Dying, in full in track list order, with a smattering of older material across 25 songs, nearly 3 hours in total. Very few artists play their new creation in totality, track by track and usually with good reason. Rarely is an album (to quote Canadian punks Sum 42) “all killer, no filler! There’s normally a track or two that never make it into the live set, whether because it’s primarily a studio track or just not strong enough to be inflicted on a paying public. I Inside The Old Year Dying is a sprawling exercise in paganistic story telling and ethereal soundscapes, which if you allow it to, pulls you into a trancelike state, as it washes over you.
The seconds she hits the stage to opener Prayer At The Gate, I’m reminded of druids and high priestesses as the long flowing wrap-round white linen dress. All that’s missing are ballet pumps and a crown of thorns to complete the look.
Recent albums have seen a change in direction from the fuzzy stomping Indie anthems of Rid Of Me and Dry. It’s been a long while since her set has seen more than a couple of tracks from these early recordings. There’s less emphasis on guitar, and more on keyboards and piano. I have to admit but the last few albums with the exception of The Hope Six Demolition Project have left me a little cold.
So, for the next 40 minutes or so, we are regaled with stories of trees, ghosts, earthly spirits and words from Ye Olde English dictionary. All of this accompanied by an almost balletic presentation, as PJ prances and twirls, throwing her arms in contorted shapes, as if to describe the very soundwaves themselves. Frankly, I don’t know what to make of the new album lyrically, she might as well be speaking in Latin. She’s very much the kookie successor to Kate Bush.
She leaves the band to front up The Colour Of The Earth before returning to tackle part 2 of the set, a stomp through much more familiar and dare I say, accessible material. The next 10 songs see PJ pick up the guitar as we skip lightly through her back catalogue, rarely stopping to harvest more than the odd track from her other 9 albums. Indeed completely bypassing both The Hope Six Demolition Project and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. It’s the last 4 tracks of this second set, which get the crowd going, with Man-Size, Dress, Down By The Water (where she introduced the band members) and To Bring You My Love. The band leave with a theatrical bow, hand in hand, like some major West End show, soaking in the applause, before returning for two more songs C’mon Billy and White Chalk, before another theatrical farewell. I’d hoped alongside many others, for Sheela Na Gig to make a long overdue appearance but to no avail. It’s 17 years since that was last played live.
All in all, a truly mesmerising experience by an artist clearly relishing her craft. Most enjoyable, even If I haven’t got a blind clue what she was on about for half the time!
Anyway, like an ex-girlfriend, she’s moved on to new pastures. As PJ says herself on the title track, “shepherd gurrel weaves”. Indeed!
Set 1: Inside The Old Year Dying – played in track list order
Interlude: The Colour Of The Earth
The Glorious Land
The Words Maketh Murder
Send His Love To Me
The Desperate Kingdom Of Love
Down By The Water
To Bring You My Love