Riding yet another wave of critical acclaim, PJ Harvey is currently joint favourite to win this years Mercury Prize for her latest album, Let England Shake. Made up of songs that consider England’s national identity (with its brutal and bloody war history as well as the inherent conflict between humanity and nature) the album may have been PJ’s fastest selling to date but it’s not your typical, hands-in-the-air festival fare. However, this weekend’s I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival, curated by Portishead and ATP, is not your typical festival. Here, in the expansive main hall of the elegant Alexandra Palace, Harvey’s emotive tales find a fitting venue that’s the equal to the poignant and stirring songs.
Such is the respect that Harvey now commands from her audience, there’s little movement from the crowd in her set, even during the lively outpourings of ‘The Skies Lit Up’ or ‘The Pocket Knife’. Far from this being a reflection of apathy, the crowd is so engrossed by the sleek movements of the figure in black, it’s all they can do to try and take in as much of her performance as possible.
But this isn’t a one-woman show. Along with Harvey’s distinctive auto-harp, Mick Harvey, John Parish and Jean-Marc Butty’s instrumentation blends folk, rock, blues, and even reggae (thanks to the disorientating but brilliant sampling of ‘Blood and Fire’ on ‘Written on the Forehead’) so well that the boundaries blur to form a sound that belongs to Harvey and Harvey alone.
Plus, there’s a great deal of restraint shown towards the structure of every song, with the placement of each beat, strum and lyric clearly meticulously considered. This ensures that the songs never collapse under the weight of Harvey’s heavy lyrical themes, drenched in gory battle imagery and laden with dark reflections on the human psyche as they are, and instead allows them to blossom. ‘The Last Living Rose’s contagious brevity and unwavering hook encapsulates this. In fact, the whole set feels barely a tenth of the 60 minutes that it lasts.