U.S. Beware, P.J. Harvey Plans Invasion With British War Songs

P.J. Harvey
P.J. Harvey in her garage before touring in support of her album "Let England Shake." The U.K. singer-songwriter has dates lined up in the U.S. and Europe. Photographer: Seamus Murphy/RMP London via Bloomberg

P.J. Harvey is going for the Pre-Raphaelite Valkyrie look. Her all-white dress is all folds and creases. A corset hugs her tightly, the bottom few of its many arms hanging loose like spare, protruding, broken ribs.

The creation is topped with a headdress of black feathers entangled in her flowing hair. The British singer is all dressed up and ready to conquer America, armed with an acclaimed concept album, “Let England Shake,” a meditation on war that says all isn’t well with the old country on the other side of the pond.

P.J., 41, is a sensation at home though hasn’t really made it in New York, even after her 2000 album inspired by the Big Apple, “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.”

That may change in 2011. Impressive recent performances in the U.K. -- Harvey dressed in the Gothic bride creation -- will be followed by dates in San Francisco, the Coachella festival and New York in April, then more European dates.

In concert, the new album is reproduced faithfully, enhanced even. Its 12 songs are interspersed with selected older numbers, “The Devil,” “The Sky Lit Up,” “Meet Ze Monsta”, which share Harvey’s current obsessions.

The woman born Polly Jean Harvey gives her songs a visceral presence onstage, playing guitars and an autoharp as her voice gains vulnerability.

On disc, this hard urgency would have been too much. Live, it is compulsive, with Jean-Marc Butty on drums, Mick Harvey and John Parish multitasking on a range of guitars and keyboards. They wear the overcoats of a generation that would have fought in trenches, apt for the songs about wartime.

The plaintive cadences of “England” or the compulsive chant of “The Words That Maketh Murder” lead to the dark battlefields detailed in the lyrics.

P.J. Harvey doesn’t make the easiest music. Her sound is to abrasive, her lyrics too intense to enter the mainstream. Her gigs are not for a simple fun night out. Still, there is a power in the music that, for all the manifest differences, matches that of prime Bob Dylan. Those who see her current show will be rewarded with an experience to keep.

Rating: ***½.

Download fees vary across services. Harvey’s CD is on Island Records, priced from $12.98 in the U.S. and 8.99 pounds in the U.K.

Information: http://www.pjharvey.net/

Harvey plays San Francisco on April 14, Coachella on April 17 and Terminal 5, New York, on April 20. Her European tour continues in May starting in Lisbon and Amsterdam. She also has summer shows in Arras, France; Ferrara, Italy; and London.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE