Wednesday 24 January 2018

No man's an island, Polly Jean reminds us

PJ Harvey - mesmerising last weekend at Glastonbury, where she read a Brexit-related 17th Century John Donne poem during her set - is a unique artist

PJ Harvey has remained an uncompromising artist through the years.
PJ Harvey has remained an uncompromising artist through the years.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Late last May, one Sunday morning, I switched on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 expecting the usual catatonia-inducing political palaver. Then into the spotlight stepped a woman who grew up on a sheep farm in Dorset, where she was brought up by her quarryman father and her artist mother. Marr promised - not, as it transpired, inaccurately - that we were in "for a treat".

Enter, all in black, alone but for her guitar, PJ Harvey - to perform a sterling, even scintillating, version of The Hope Six Demolition Project, from her extraordinary new album of that name. 'Stretching down to Benning Road,' sang PJ, 'A well-known 'pathway of death'/At least that's what I'm told'.

Polly Jean Harvey makes Sylvia Plath look light-hearted. Break-up lyrics like those from 1993's Rid Of Me prove this beyond argument: 'I beg you my darling/Don't leave me/ I'm hurting/Lick my legs - I'm on fire/Lick my legs of desire'.

The emotional intensity of Rid Of Me is so high-octane that it might not surprise many of you to hear that Ms Harvey apparently had a nervous breakdown of sorts around the time of its release.

In 1995, The New York Times rated PJ Harvey's Is This Desire album their LP of the Year. That year, Rolling Stone and Spin magazines dubbed her their Artist of the Year.

Eleven years later, Polly Jean, the anti-diva and alt.queen supreme, has not gone backward artistically.

Her performance at Glastonbury last weekend was mesmerising in its artistic complexity and depth.

She stopped her set at one point to read a particularly prescient poem from the 17th century, No Man Is An Island.

"Today has been very strange for a lot of us here and I would like to share with you a piece that was written by the English poet John Donne in 1624," she told the Glasto crowd before reading it out, with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage possibly blocking their ears had they been in the crowd.

'No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.'

Harvey's performance echoed something her former manager Paul McGuinness was quoted as saying in The Observer a few years ago: "She comes from an art school ethos. Had she not got a record deal she would have gone on to do fine art at St Martin's. She did get a record deal, but in a way she's been at art school ever since. She's extremely independent. She makes a plan and then very methodically carries it out."

This artistic plan is certainly methodically carried out on her ninth album The Hope Six Demolition Project, the follow-up to the fierce anti-war pièce de résistance Let England Shake.

In an interview PJ gave to promote Let England Shake in 2011, she said: "The world that we live in is very brutal, and I wanted to be honest about that."

She could have been talking about The Hope Six Demolition Project album. The album's title refers to the HOPE VI housing projects in America, where she says poor housing communities with "high crime rates have been demolished to make room for better housing, but with the effect that many previous residents could no longer afford to live there, leading to claims of social cleansing."

The overall album came about after PJ's visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. between 2011 and 2014 with war photographer and documentary-maker Seamus Murphy. The song The Wheel references - albeit obliquely - Kosovo and the disappearance of 28,000 children.

Harrowing, strong stuff with images that stay locked in your psyche long after you have stopped listening to the song.

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