The handful of people barking out names of old songs at PJ Harvey's show at last night at New York City's Terminal 5 were bound to be disappointed: Polly Jean Harvey has never been the kind of artist who takes orders. Last night, she was on stage with a very specific mission – bringing to life Let England Shake, the visionary LP she released in February – and no amount of boozy bellowing from the crowd would put her off it.
Let England Shake is a strange, dark piece of work, a concept album about decaying empires that uses vividly disturbing World War I imagery as a lens for our own era. At Terminal 5, Harvey and her backing band (guitarist John Parish, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, drummer Jean-Marc Butty) played each of the album's 12 songs using a minimal yet striking stage set-up. She stood spotlit at stage right, a couple of yards off from the band, wearing a flowing white robe and spiky headdress as she clutched an autoharp and recited unsettling lyrics to keening melodies. The combined effect was to make her seem like some kind of warning apparition from another century.
It was a spellbinding spectacle – at least for someone who loves Let England Shake. A not-huge but fairly vocal portion of the audience seemed less enthused. When Harvey finally did break out a few older songs ("C'mon Billy," "The River," a thunderous "Big Exit"), they sounded fantastic, of course, and the audience cheered louder than it had all night.