PJ Harvey & John Parish
Polly Jean Harvey is an artist.
You may argue any musician in the rock circuit, especially in the “alternative” circus, can be considered an artist. Yes and no. It depends.
Let me explain this, or just enjoy the pictures.
When PJ started off, almost 20 years ago, she was a student at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London. She was studying sculpture and dreaming of becominng a rockstar.
Dry, her debut album, is a wonderful, direct, essential alternative rock album.
Today PJ is not (only) a rockstar, she is back being a pure Artist, as pure as the white of her dress. A performer that uses rock music as medium of expression. Which is quite different from being a rock musicians.
Art and Rock are put together quite often from the rock perspective, last month the entire issue of the Observer Music Monthly was about this.
They are instead quite separate if seen from the point of view of the posh, lofty, trendy world of contemporary art. Those magazines quite rarely show any info about rock music. I am talking about the art world, not its public.
You may argue ICA sponsors some cool rock music events but the perception is that they let you live it more as a favour. As if the doors of a higher culture temple allow some sort of “minor” creatures in. I am talking about the musicians, not the public.
On a counterpart quite often happens that when rock musicians move and effectively use visual art suddenly acquire an higher consideration throughout. The Stone Rose John Squire or Brian Eno himself are just two examples.
Using rock music as a medium for your art, implies using yourself. As with any performer, in PJ Harvey the artist as a person and the art as a piece of work, coincide.
She also produces physical objects, detached from her, as the CDs or LPs, but that is nothing more that the documentation of her performances; like buying a Marina Abramovich book (but also Picasso’s) you don’t experience her art but see a reproduction of the work.
PJ Harvey needs to be experienced live on stage (and probably in a studio, but this is usually not open to common people).
It is there that she performs herself. If this is happening in rock venues and festival instead of art galleries is just because rock happens there.
During the years she expressed through herself, music, lyrics and stage presence. Her nature, her temper, her character is all in her body of work.
From the rough, coarse sound of Dry and, even more, Rid Of Me to the experimental journey of Is This Desire? From the experimental dark gothic introspection condensed in To Bring You My Love to the challenge of writing pop songs and having a pop look for Stories From the City Stories From the Sea (which gave her the Mercury prize giving rise the question “why music press is so short viewed?”) and the need of returning to the guitar and the discomfort with Uh Uh Her, another wonderful album which need tenths of listenings to overcome the uneasiness and be appreciated.
In such an intricate alternating feelings, sounds and tours there are two chapters of PJ Harvey carreer that need to be analysed separately.
Dance Hall at Louse Point, 1996. Her first official collaboration with John Parish, a man who often appears in the sleeve notes but not in the “author” line. This is not her greatest album but it is the first example of PJ delegating the music to someone, to concentrate on the lyrics.
White Chalk, 2007, her last solo project. Once again she U-turns from her previous album.
Once again ignoring the rules of music market, she does what she feels (the artist), music is the medium.
She approaches the piano, learns how to play it and, most relevant for what is happening today, she works a lot on her voice leaving the Patty Smith-esque rants for a PJ Harvey falsetto style.
What is usual in the art world, it is less in rock world. As a fan, you feel ignored and fans want a sign they are considered. PJ Harvey is not writing songs that her audience would like. She doesn’t give you a product to make you feel emotional. She does a much more intimate act, she wants you to feel something through her emotions. She gives herself and it is up to you to take it or leave it.
No compromise. Art can’t be focused on achieving global reception, art must divide, art must look forward, art must go beyond. It must make your mind active, must make you think.
Tonight PJ is sharing Shepherds Bush Empire’s stage with John Parish to finally perform with her mentor. They have a new album out, A Woman a Man Walked By. As in their previous she wrote the lyrics and Parish composed the music.
Through the first 5 or 6 listening, I prefer this LP on their previous, but, as with any PJ album, I need time to let it settle.
I stay convinced that is more John Parish gaining from the collaboration then PJ, but I must be wrong. Such a perfect chemistry wouldn’t have worked out so long.
The presence of John Parish and the White Chalk experience let PJ abandon any instrument and concentrate on vocal. This is the media of her art and this is the fulcrum of the performance.
The fact that your body is your work it’s not a static concept. You can do endless things with it, you can play guitar, piano, dance or use the voice. Tonight PJ sang (and danced a bit) with awesome results.
After having worked on singing for the past 2 years (thesis), if you trust a man to direct your band (antithesis) the natural synthesis is these shows and the album.
For the (un)happiness of the ones expecting a greatest hits set, the gig rotates only around their two albums. One is just out, the previous missed by most.
Four men come on stage with Borsalino hat and dark suits and a woman with an elaborate hairstyle wears a white pearl dress and a red lipstick. PJ Harvey tonight looks like Whitesnow getting turning rockstar.
Black Hearted Love opens the album and the set. Being the new single and probably the best song of the album, it is the tune you want to use to close a show in style. Not her, from the beginning we have the first taste of self confidence and intransigence.
Sixteen-Fifteen-Fourteen follows. This is the one selected for the official merchandise T-Shirt.
80% of the lyrics are a countdown. Just the idea would irritate me if it was from anyone else, she manages to transform it into a great song. An oddity I haven’t heard since Space Oddity.
The middle of the set is dedicated to their first album, Dance Hall at Louse Point.
Rope Bridge Crossing shows everyone who is the star tonight, Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool is more upbeat and PJ enjoys playing maracas and attempt sensual dance moves, smiling. Yes, she smiles, which is a news to be reporeted.
Civil War Correspondent is one of those songs where Patti Smith ghost materializes too much.
The Soldier is a break from the past, probably because it title sits well next to Civil War Correspondent, who knows.
Two more tunes from Dance Hall…, Taut and Un Cercle Autour du Soleil close the chapter with the past and leave the present to the grandiose final. Her and the audience both had enough of the past.
The Chair opens. She sings of a son on a scattered drum beat. I am not aware she has a son (correct me if I am wrong), I remember an interview were she claimed her song are not autobiographical. In fact it fits my theory. She is the artist, the art piece is her. She is not a storyteller.
Leaving California is recognizable from the first syllable. Her falsetto, tested on White Chalk, abandoned the piano for an angelic/bucolic touch by Parish’s banjo.
If this is autobiographical I don’t know, but clearly it is an indirect ode to England singing about leaving California. She confesses a mistake. Living in California is not possible “California Killed Her”. What is “California” in PJ mind is open to debate, but more t-shirts are on sale with the “California killed me” verse on, so it must have been of a certain importance.
The title track, which are 2 songs joined, is the moment the band can show how good it is.
The first half A woman a man walked by is sort of spoken-word exercise have PJ Harvey ranting about “a woman man”, a friend that turned out to be something else, another confessed mistake. “Just stick it up your fucking ass” is repeated several times and it is the verse anyone will remember from the new album.
The anger live is not as resentful as it sounds on record. Singing about it must have calmed her down, music therapy.
What rose as a counterpart is John Parish in the second part, The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go. This is a splendid example of a sonic exploration into a band that can mix its dark, mature edge with a fury which is second only to Nick Cave’s Grinderman.
I come to a thought I had at this moment. If only PJ Harvey instead of meeting John Parish again after 13 years met Nick Cave, they would write the best music ever.
Today she has a much better singing, increased self-confidence. He is not obsessed with gothic murder ballads and is leaving a second youth.
If only they read me… please folks, give it another try.
Passionless, Pointless and Cracks on the Canvas embrace the melancholy bit of the night. The first is about the end of a love. The second another spoken start (with the organ reminding me of Glasvegas’ Stabbed, don’t tell her). The text face death with the most obvious questions “what’s next?” the fact that she is a brilliant writer makes it with a simple gem:
“How do we cope
With the days after a death?
Empty days, nothing left
Not even a funeral”
I would have closed the gig here. She decides to sing Pig Will Not that is probably the most excessive song on the album, in a negative way. A forced interpretation even in the live rendition. It reminds me of Uh Uh Her, bad timing.
The encore opens with “one of her favourite songs ever” which is False Fire. I haven’t understood if the author is Parish or someone else. For sure it is a his song tonight. He once again do the Bad Seeds thing and leads his band in a beautiful rendition, quite. If only he had a Warren Ellis.
The songs breaks in another PJ falsetto for the closure. April
“I don’t know what silence means.
It could mean anything.”
Mild and sweet as this London spring. It’s 20th of April, walk back to the tube reflecting about the meaning of silence.
Polly Jean Harvey is an artist.
Let me explain why this statement permeates even the photo tip.
Artists wants things as they please, ignoring the rest of the world, even when this are human beings (i.e. the photographers).
Call it tantrum, artists always have explanations so it is useless to ask.
The problem exists when this couple with Shepherds Bush Empire’s policy, which in terms of bureaucracy is second only to Breznev USSR.
PJ wanted photographers divided in two groups. First could photograph just songs 4 and 5, second only songs 8 and 9. This is the tantrum.
Shephers Bush don’t let photographers in the stall so they have to wait outside.
Fine, what if I have a ticket to review the gig?
As “simple” as this: “Ok, Valerio do this…you stay in the venue for the first song and a half. At the end of the second song you meet me in this backdoor. We got the passes sorted (they hadn’t arrived yet) you listen to the 3rd song from the backdoor (without viewing it), then you enter for the 4th and the 5th. Someone will come to take you outside at the end of the 5th. You go back to the backstage, leave the cameras, get your number and go back in to see the gig from this other entrance. At the end of the gig, get out from the main entrance, walk all around the building, go to the outside backdoor (it is a different one) to claim your camera back.” Breathe. It is all true.
The night before I arrived at the Forum for Ben Harper, got the pass, entered the venue, shot the first three songs and stayed in to see and review the gig with no hassle at all.
Hopefully lights were great but I will try not to shoot at the Shepherds Bush again.