No woman can rock like Polly Jean Harvey, not even punk priestess Patti Smith. With seven albums under her belt (counting 4-Track Demos and the shamefully under-heard Dance Hall at Louse Point), Miss Polly is as consistently grandiose as she is ever-evolving. At her best (To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?), Harvey’s haunting moans and shattering screeches flatter her epic, almost primordial meditations on love and sex. With Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, it’s New York City she’s singing to, and as such it’s only fitting that Harvey’s 2001 Headlining Tour commences in the Big Apple, the city that breathed life into half of Stories, culminating at London’s Brixton Academy (Dorset gave birth to the album’s other half).
Waiting for Harvey to take the Hammerstein stage at her second New York date, a cohort informed our immediate area of the singer’s rumored romantic imbroglio with the shamelessly abrasive ex-model-actor-turned-director-incognito Vincent Gallo. An accomplished, lyrically campy opening jam session by Morris Tepper served as a comedic backdrop to our fantastical musings on the sexual escapades of Harvey and her soul sisters Björk, Fiona Apple, and Tori Amos. Intense and empowering as her compatriots may be, Harvey asserts her femininity with pagan guns ablazin’ and it’s force that’s unfettered, raw, and truly erotic to behold. We concluded that Gallo must be a lucky guy. Waiting for Tepper to clear the stage for Harvey, we hoped he understood that the son of God had to die for his all-powerful sheela-na-gig.
A simple blackness serves as Polly’s backdrop as she emerges from backstage. (Madonna can put on a fierce spectacle, but with Polly it is all about the music.) Her contradiction is instantly on display as she steps up to the mic. Clothed in a black satiny skintight outfit, she could easily be showcasing some Adult Contemporary Vegas act. But this is Miss Polly, picking up a guitar and strumming silently on stage to “This Mess We’re In.” Outside, the moon shines brightly over New York as she sings, “You must leave now/Before the sunrise.” She’s an undeniably shy creature when it comes to thanking her audience. Her apologia is her music, though, so it’s okay. Back aching from standing on the floor for two hours, I couldn’t help but read every Harvey tale of urban angst as a love paean to New York. Her morbid playfulness is on full display with “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore,” possibly the best of Stories’s uptempo tracks. Polly spent six months in New York before writing the songs for her last album, but “Whore” feels as if it were telegraphed from Hell’s Kitchen in the late 70s, when the streets were worked by loveless pimps and beat-up whores. Her sly cackle is her speed-induced call for love—everyone needs a fix, even Polly fans.
How will Boston, Los Angeles, and Brixton react to Harvey’s New York flavor? They’ll dig “Hair” and rejoice in “Send His Love to Me,” but the softly cataclysmic “Good Fortune” will ring extra true to the New York native who has walked who’s ever thought about the fantastical nature of the Big Apple’s dreamy, structural iconography. Harvey seems to occupy a space between Chinatown and Little Italy, celebrating a culturally defined theft of love. “Big Exit” is the singer’s fight for uniqueness before a neon-doused cityscape threatening to tighten its grip on the soul: “I walk on concrete/I walk on sand/But I can’t find/A safe place to stand.” “The Sky Lit Up” is the lone rep from Is This Desire?, an apt piece of urban lore through which Harvey celebrates nature as a symbiotic companion to the pangs of love. Although she criminally failed to perform “The Wind” at her last headlining tour, the wounds have healed. The brilliant Desire? was a metaphorically dense, disquieting affair that has given way to the more enamored and playful Polly Jean standing before us on stage.
“Somebody’s Down, Somebody’s Name” (from the “Down by the Water” EP) and “Nickel Under The Foot” (from the Cradle Will Rock soundtrack) will appeal to hardcore Polly fans although their inclusion seems random at best, if not a tad alienating in relation to the relatively hit-heavy set. Indeed, Harvey strikes the biggest nerve with her performance of the hyper-punk “Rid of Me.” Harvey’s stage rendition is as cogent as ever; the song’s post-feminist subversion is in full effect as Harvey’s girlish stage garb ironically complements her ode to the fetishistic nature of her womanly demands. Another Ride of Me anthem serves as a show highlight and a startling reminder of the power of the female stroke when Miss Polly straddles her guitar for a scorching rendition of “Man-Size.”
The petite Miss Polly is forever imposing, a slithering creature of female-cum-hitherness who has reshaped her Chrissie Hynde vocal talents and Patti Smith punk-power into what is the most multifarious musical talent to ever hit the indie circuit. (“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” played silently before the set, a soft reminder of Bob Dylan’s influence on the punk priestess.) Harvey’s headlining tour is significantly less bibilical than usual (with only three or four references to the Lord Jesus) but “66 Promises” attests to the ongoing power of her female-whip as sinewy horns and electronic blips accent the moans that fall from our host’s lips. Walking into the New York air, “Sheela-na-gig” (the show’s closing number) seethed into my consciousness. I pictured a fertile Harvey making her way through the streets as an urban reincarnation of the mythical Sheela.