In May 1994, Q magazine published an article about three groundbreaking female artists who also featured on what would become an unforgettable shot for the cover: Bjork, Tori Amos and PJ Harvey.
The inherent misogyny that the Q article later became famed for (the headline read, unbelievably, ‘Hips, Lips, Tits, Power’) put a focus on the women as somehow competing for their spot in the limelight. The piece went on to spark discussion about the way that women in the music industry were treated, discussed and pigeonholed into accepted roles.
The three women, that article, that photoshoot, and the debate it ignited became iconic.
Bjork and Amos have gone on careers which are astonishing in their longevity and creative output. And yet it’s Harvey who has, arguably, forged the most interesting path. Her uncompromising artistry, (unlike Bjork’s, which can feel alienating), makes her increasingly fascinating and relevant.
The first half of this astonishing concert is a straight-through playing of the new album. There’s no chat with the audience, nothing ad-libbed or unplanned, and the experience feels like a piece of theatre, fully choreographed, with Harvey playing a character or characters, perfectly lit and beautifully performed. Of the new album, much has been made of it being recorded at the very moment of creation, the studio having been set up for live performance with an air of improvisation. The achingly beautiful songs that result, and this performance piece, carry that sense – a feeling at once spontaneous that they meticuously choreographed. This is helped in no small part by lighting design that is, at times, subtly breathtaking.
Following the first half’s rapturous reception from an audience as captivated by and invested in the performance as Harvey and her band (there’s only one irritating scream of “Come on Polly” all night), there follows a gallows ‘greatest hits’ stretching as far back as 1993’s Man Size. And what a joy for Polly to announce – with the biggest smile – a surprise guest to the stage in the form of Johnny Marr, eliciting a mass audible gasp from the capacity crowd.
Throughout the night, Harvey is note-perfect. Her voice is stunning, her range as incredible as that of her album styles. Whether she’s singing a haunting lament about war from Let England Shake or disturbing us with sexual abuse in C’mon Billy or Down by the Water, she exudes a certainty of purpose, a surety of skill and a musical confidence that’s, frankly, unmatched.
Thirty years on from Q’s questionable intentions, PJ Harvey remains untouchable.
Main image: PJ Harvey. Credit Hels Millington.