Sydney Festival: PJ Harvey

Alexander McPherson
25th Jan 2017

“They toil not, neither do they spin”– Matthew 6:28

Polly Jean enters stage right in a marching band, sax in hand. Whistling bells and dispatched radios hound the night sky, the mistress has arrived. Is this the rapture? You must not talk, now is her time to be heard. The woman has waited, the woman has wailed, now the woman will tell the tale.

PJ Harvey, wide eyed and in pagan stance, hands out stretched as her fingers draw tears from the ceiling. No farce from this seasoned performer, from start to finish not a fleeting moment of laughter or a single smile form her lips.

"For Poesy! – no, - she has not a joy" – John Keats

In a time when the world seems to be yearning for honesty, the artists with indignation to suit are hard to come by. And it may be right that most of us prefer to hear of peaches and cream… But for the ones crying out for truth, or at least a true “stance” on terror, Harvey is undoubtedly doing her best. She is performing so her message can be heard, and boy does she have deliverance.

Her most recent album and that which formed the core of the performance is entitled The Hope Six Demolition Project. It was written by Harvey during travels to Afghanistan, and Kosovo, that ended in Washington DC. Harvey seeks to find similarities not differences, and in the ‘Hope VI’ projects she found it. Not unlike many who have been relocated across the globe for any number of “reasons”, those in the “slums” of DC found themselves at the mercy of plans to create a more urban and defensible space. Ultimately their reconstructed communities provided a higher standard of living that they could not afford. After all, “There gonna build a Walmart here”.

A striking comparison is made, Harvey is trying to show that it’s not where you’re from but what you’re about that makes the difference. Are we willing to ingest any more hypocrisy or are you ready to stand, on your own ground for what you believe in? Is it the comfort of your couch and TV that makes you happy, or can you expand your vision? Perhaps first to the man on the street, then our compassion might run wild to all of humanity.

There is no depth that Harvey will not go to, “I've laid with the devil / Cursed god above / Forsaken heaven / to bring you my love” One can’t help feel the fiery passion of a leather clad lady, yet to fall into the haze of seduction would not do her message justice. After all is it not adherence that breeds hypocrisy? What if we could disrobe those guards at the gates of our piety, would our romance with life not be stronger?

"The supreme good is like water… It is content with the low places that people disdain." – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

On “Highway 61 Revisited," a Bob Dylan cover, Harvey goes in search of the original sin, why is it that man keeps sending their sons and daughters to the same old fate again and again… There was a very subtle and fine architecture built around this message. A string of songs off her 2011 album Let England Shake, as well as some of her more ecclesial back catalogue including ‘The Devil”, “Is this Desire” and “Down by the Water” supported her crusade.

A fan said to me on departing the gig, “We just looove her, she does this for us!” I think that’s true, when though will we choose to do it for others? PJ has lit a candle in the darkness, in a circle of men she stands.

The chairs blur

and form a ring


That ends

Where it begins