Some pop stars start off well and slowly tarnish with age and there are some who slowly graduate to greatness. PJ Harvey started off well enough back in 1992 as a UK female grunge answer to Kurt Cobain, but there were a good few years between the albums To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire? where she seemed to lose her way. Polly Harvey could never be bad but she tested her fans, myself included, with some pretty introspective, uncommercial records. Fortunately, the album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea made it worth the wait, and the follow-up, Uh Huh Her proves to inject further life into what turned out to be a blistering set tonight.
A couple of years back I saw PJ at Shepherd’s Bush Empire the year Stories… was released and was actually quite disappointed. Again, the introspection of the previous albums hadn’t seemed to leave her and she lacked engagement with the audience. Tonight though, everything is different: There’s a defiance in her look and stage presence this time around, as if she’s daring you to ignore her.
It’s clear from the roars of appreciation, which are as loud after every song as with tonight’s opener, Badmouth, that Polly is without doubt, on top form. The new songs from Uh Huh Her such as Who The Fuck and The Letter are raw and crisply executed, but tonight is not just about plugging the new album. Tracks ageing back as far as Dress are dusted down and given an airing, and a good few songs from the swampy To Bring You My Love album (Meet Ze Monsta, The Dancer and the enigmatic title track) are breathed new life, balancing the accessibility of tracks from Stories… (Big Exit, Good Fortune and The Whores Hustle, which were nothing short of inspirational).
In case you’re interested, the ever-changing image has progressed yet another step from the gypsy earings and scraped-back hair of the Dry era, the infamous transvestite makeup and pink catsuit stylings of the post-Rid Of Me years and the more sophisticated look of the Stories… album. Polly has loosened up again and her newly cropped hair (not unlike Lucy Lui’s in Kill Bill) matched with a blazing red outfit, seem to reflect the more abrasive, exciting edge to her music.
If you’re going to charge fans 25-odd quid for a ticket you must (a) be certain of your fanbase’s adoration and (b) be certain that you can deliver in spades what the fans have come to see. Tonight Polly delivers an unforgettable performance, and the fans who cheered long and loud enough to keep her up on stage for nearly two hours were treated to an impromptu second encore of Nina In Ecstacy followed by a strange falsetto version of ’70s bubblegum pop hit Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. It’s the kind of thing that only someone like PJ Harvey can pull off.
By bringing together the key elements of her past and present, tonight’s gig makes the past decade or so all make sense. It’s this which makes PJ Harvey always worth persevering with, even through difficult and unpredictable times. Some twelve years into her career, she has never sounded this fresh and exciting. Miss at your own peril.