It was a Friday night a week ago when we went to the much anticipated PJ Harvey concert, my husband John, his friend Glen and myself. Midsummer in Sydney it was a warm, inky twilight as we ate a dinner at a Chinatown restaurant and then walked on towards the International Convention Centre near Darling Harbour. Our tickets on our mobiles were scanned by a bevy of security guards, one of who told me that my innocent steel water bottle had to go to the cloak room for the night.
Seated inside the vast auditorium with its subdued lighting and misty swirling air, we were a just a few of a mighty swarm of bees buzzing with a low, but powerful tone in the rows and rows of seats that slanted upwards from the stage and the crowded mosh pit. Much of the audience were Gen-Xers in their forties, greying, but still defiantly young, dressed in jeans, moderately radical shirts and tees, tattoos and the women, some in gothic inspired dresses fluttering here and there bearing plastic cups of beer or other alcoholic beverages down the stairs to the concrete floored mosh-pit and back again chatting animatedly amongst themselves and occasionally embracing a friend.
Nick Cave was due to play at the same venue the next night, John remarked. PJ Harvey and Nick Cave had had an affair. I wondered how they would work together and here is their beautiful and melancholy duet Henry Lee. But the affair ended. PJ said later that she was so upset that she was going to give up making music and become a nurse. But somehow she went on playing and composing music, the anti-war ‘Let England Shake’ and now the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, where hope in mankind’s future seems just about dead on the ground – to judge from the lyrics.
Not that I knew anything about this new album when the lights went dark and the band began to file onto the stage drumming, PJ Harvey amongst them brandishing a saxophone. John said it was ‘Chain of Keys’. The ten musicians took their places, PJ fronting the audience with her microphone, dressed in flowing, gauzy black robes, her fine straight hair loose, crowned with a black head-dress. The rest of the band wore somber, dusty and rumpled looking black jackets and trousers. At this juncture, John pointed out Mick Harvey, the musician at the keyboard, and said he was really good and had previously worked for some time with Nick Cave.
PJ has a distinctive voice. On her albums, it is soft, silvery and so fragile it almost appears ready to break. It is a two-coloured voice, veering from a deeper set of keys to a higher octave and very tunefully at the same time. But live, at the concert, her voice sounds very powerful and rides above the band’s wave of music with perfect confidence. Too, she sings with great feeling as she moves in complete accord with the rhythm, her hands delicately drawing and weaving the meanings of her music into a unity of sound, beat, voice and drama.
She moved with grace, like a muse or even a priestess, gliding quietly every now and then to the back of the stage near the drummer to take up a saxophone and play in company with the other saxophonist. She has said she likes to keep challenging herself with learning how to play new instruments, which illustrates not only her creative energy, but also her respect for the other players in her band.
Much of what she played came from her new album the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, with songs such as the opening ‘Chain of Keys’, ‘The Wheel, ‘River Anacostia’, ‘Medicinals’, ‘The Orange Monkey’, ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ which sounded compelling, emotive and powerful on the stage although she also sang songs from other albums like ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, one about taking a child home and another about doing black deeds for love. And I have to marvel at how she seemed to utterly best the comparatively subdued and rehearsed studio performance of her album with the crashing waves of her live act. It was dynamite. No danger of having a diva lip-synching here. This was the real deal.
‘How good was the band!’ Glen exclaimed when the concert ended and the sated swarm of people were moving back out into the city night, twinkling with lights reflecting in the calm, black waters of the harbour. Throughout the performance, PJ and the band emanated a sense of quiet and harmonious co-operation and camaraderie, she fading in and out to become one of them. Three-quarters of the way through, PJ had introduced the musicians to the audience to applaud one by one, the drums, electronic keyboard, saxophone, guitars, before they all nonchalantly dipped into the last of the set for the night. They had a standing ovation and after a while were back with two more great songs before they finally bowed out and filed quietly backstage and the lights went back on.
The lyrics of her new album are dark and pessimistic of human nature, echoing perhaps what she saw on a trip through third world countries, as well as the US she took with a photographer Seamus Murphy between 2011-2014, which appeared in The Guardian (never mind some of the rude reader comments). Amid such wastelands as Afghanistan and also Washington DC (the US is a wasteland of a different kind), she appears to wonder whether humans have a future at all with lines like: ‘…hey little children don’t disappear. (Heard it was 28,000)’ and ‘they’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit’.
The music she sets her lyrics to can be comforting, but only to remind us of what we’ve lost in the scramble for ‘advanced’ civilisation – as in the song ‘Medicinals’. She juxtaposes the ancient healing herbs that grow wild in America that say ‘we are always here’ against the image of an indigenous woman in a wheelchair at a shopping mall drinking alcohol. This song suggests that the loss of the natural environment is a loss to humanity, to culture and causes a mental sickness that nothing can cure.
Her occasional traditional tunefulness amidst broken but strong rhythms that veer between blues, reggae and rock and roll form a kind of unique and off-beat chaos that is PJ Harvey. For instance, ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ has a compelling rhythm that changes tempo in odd ways and it is this rhythm that underlies the utter gravity of this anti-war song. Her gentle, fay, but infallible voice rides above her music and in the drumming energy, there is a kind of fatalistic sadness and deep emotion, as in the chorus ‘…and watch them fade out…’ of ‘The Wheel’.
In an interview with the Irish Times, the eponymous man of science Professor Brian Cox wonders whether the human race may destroy itself before it gets any further: ‘Cox believes it all hinges on “our ability to take global decisions”. Civilisations “get to the point where they can destroy themselves, they will get to the point where they can change the climate by industrialisation – and that requires your civilisation to be global in decision making. In 2016, we’ve gone backwards.”.
Perhaps we ultimately may not be able to reconcile our superior intellect, and complex reasoning and moral faculties with our essentially animal and warlike nature. Are we doomed? With the Doomsday Clock ticking another 30 seconds towards midnight, PJ Harvey just goes on making and playing music, underlining injustice, waste and inhumanity in the extraordinary energy of her songs. There are many who are listening and over the megalomania and war and pollution roiling in the world today, our collective voice of reason may yet prevail.
Back in the 1970s when ‘The Bomb’ was a foreboding term echoing the cadence of the end of the world, I saw a cartoon with the caption: ‘Man demonstrates his superiority over animals’. Before an animal, a man with his great brain was in the act of detonating himself with a remarkable piece of technology that he had made. The great artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci saw hundreds of years ago that mankind would one day hold the power of life or death over every living thing on earth. That day has arrived.