Polly Jean Harvey is not one to look back. During her infamous 1995 tour, she tore up the stage in a crimson dress and thick red lipstick, but she has since dropped that theatrical performance mode, along with a lot else. At New York’s Terminal 5 last night, she walked onto the stage looking extremely serious in pale makeup and a white dress almost exactly like the one on the cover of White Chalk. She approached the mic slowly, autoharp in hand, like a corpse bride or a sacrificial lamb leading itself to slaughter. The audience, made up of many longtime fans now in their 30s, were nothing less than polite as they sat through Harvey’s latest material. The sense of relief when she finally strapped on a guitar was palpable. This was the PJ Harvey they knew: the guttural, Sheela Na Gig, 50 Ft Queenie who could seduce you with her stare before she cut you with her shiny blade.
Of course, those were always just characters, and predictably, not the kind Harvey’s interested in playing anymore. Her new album, Let England Shake, accounted for the vast majority of the set list (she played every track off the album), and while the new songs are easy to admire, they’re hard to love: There’s something precious and worked-over about them, though the energy of the live performance gave them a force they lack on record. Those protest chants, “to the United Nations,” at the end of “The Words That Maketh Murder” sounded as urgent as they should, and “All and Everyone” redeemed itself as the album’s hidden gem. Harvey’s voice ranged from deep groans to whiny falsetto, her new register of choice, and given how diminutive she is, it was a wonder to watch such sounds come from such a small machine.
The old stuff? Well, she seems happy to keep it that way. There were nods to To Bring You My Love with “Down by the Water” and “C’mon Billy,” deadpan performances that were emptied of their originals’ sinister complexity, and surprisingly rousing performances of “Pocket Knife,” in which she busted some awkwardly angular but fierce dance moves, and “Big Exit,” from 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, by far her most undervalued album and still the best connection between her early, angry work and her poetess phase.
You can’t ask Harvey to be someone she was 18 years ago. She’s estranged to the unapologetic 22-year-old who made Dry. When, at one point during the show, apropos of nothing, someone shouted out for “Man-Size,” it became clear how much Harvey has changed: To hear her snarl any of the sexually charged lyrics from Rid of Me would probably seem sad at this point. (Tellingly, she didn’t play anything from either of those first two albums.) The problem is that, judging by the crowd, her fanbase hasn’t changed very much, and her more recent work seems to be playing mostly to herself. When another person, seemingly inspired by the anti-war stance of Let England Shake, shouted, “End the occupation of Afghanistan!” a woman responded, in half-jest, “Lick my legs!” It was a sentiment you might wish Harvey would express herself.