It’s Halloween, and Polly Jean Harvey emerges from the darkness. She stalks the stage while leading her sombre troupe of drum-beating musicians across this territory, that is now completely her own, to the percussive battering of ‘Chain of Keys’, with the solemnity of a funeral procession, and the foreboding of an ancient mystical ritual. It is a mesmerising, almost cultish introduction – her onstage companions possess an aura of devout followers rather than band mates – is hypnotic, and you feel you have been thrust into the frame of a Wes Craven/David Lynch movie hybrid.
From the moment Harvey reveals herself – wrapped in a black, flowing gothic dress with accompanying feathered headdress – the auditorium capitulates and fixes its awe-inspired gaze upon the sinister silhouette before them. Those who resist are corralled by the captivating spells cast through Harvey’s rapturous soundtrack which accompanies the visual spectacle she delivers with such unnerving subtlety. The audience are left not knowing whether to applaud or stand in bewildered veneration, worshipping at the feet of their occult goddess. This is not merely a show of music, this is theatre: and oh, how we are thankful to be witnesses to it.
The Hope Six Demolition Project, Harvey’s 9th studio offering and her first UK number 1 album, dominates the evening, with all 11 tracks represented in the 20-song setlist. While plenty offerings from Hope Six’s predecessor, Let England Shake, are also conjured up. The stage is enveloped with an atmosphere of menace and disquiet as the lasting chant of “This is how the world will end” erupts from the Ministry of Defence, a song laden with war imagery and thundering reverberations, throughout. The slightly schizophrenic tones of ‘The Wheel’ with its references to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, do nothing to assuage the ominous pall that rises off the stage like an invisible but palpable phonic vapour. Much credit should also be given to the all-male shadowers of the enigmatic Harvey, who project a booming tidal wave of sound which propels the drama of the new songs, upon which Harvey’s voice can still often cut through and, at times, float elegantly above. If Hope Six is the protest against the state of the current world, Harvey is the power that gives the sentiments their potency.
However, it is those offerings from Let England Shake and, my personal favourite, To Bring You My Love, together with the whipped up frenzy of 50-foot Queenie, which rips through the Brixton Academy like a hurricane, that metaphorically raze the cavernous South London venue to the ground.
The entire night is a tour de force and a demonstration in how to craft an absolute masterpiece of melodic theatre, not through pomposity or pyrotechnics – which Polly Jean is, thankfully, devoid of – but through the perfect, uncorrupted catharsis of musical and lyrical expression, of which Harvey is a consummate choreographer. Albeit with the help of an disarmingly magnetic and beguiling stage presence. Following the untimely death of David Bowie, Polly Jean Harvey is arguably our best living music artist…and, at age 47, she hasn’t yet reached the top of her game.