PJ Harvey at Roundhouse review: an immersive thrill from a musical one-off

 (Samir Hussein/WireImage)
(Samir Hussein/WireImage)

In the seven years since she last played London, Polly Jean Harvey has revitalised her relationship with music. Disillusioned with the seemingly endless cycle of writing albums and touring, in 2017 the two-time Mercury Prize-winner stepped back from her solo career, switching her focus to composing scores and poems. And yet, it was poetry that paved the way back to music, with 2022’s narrative piece Orlam ultimately sparking inspiration for July’s long-player, I Inside the Old Year Dying.

At the first of two sell-out evenings at the Roundhouse, Harvey dedicated the first half of the set to performing that album in full. Blending eerie folk with electronic influences, steeped in magical realist imagery and delivered in the Dorset vernacular, it’s a challenging if rewarding listen on record. Live, it proved an immersive experience, thanks to director Ian Rickson’s intimate staging and to musical director John Parish’s evocative yet economical arrangements.

Whether swaying impressionistically or gliding between the artfully positioned wooden furniture, Harvey provided a hypnotic focal point, spectre-like in her white gown. Meanwhile, her extraordinary, keening upper register kept the audience spellbound. That otherworldly feel was accentuated by the addition of evocative field recordings, be it birdsong (Lwonesome Tonight), the disembodied shrieks of children (Autumn Term) or the sombre peal of church bells (I Inside The Old I Dying).

With assistance from long-time collaborators Parish, Jean-Marc Butty, James Johnston and Giovanni Ferrario, on stage Harvey thawed the album’s icier moments. Live, The Nether-Edge boasted a welcome earthiness, while August benefitted from a cameo from Northern Irish actor Colin Morgan on additional vocals and bodhrán, the Irish drum.

After a flab-free 40 minutes of new songs, Harvey moved seamlessly into nostalgia mode. With another 30 years worth of material to mine – ranging from abrasive punk to FM-friendly rock – it could easily have made for a disjointed second act. Instead, Harvey cleverly traced a line through her peerless back catalogue, demonstrating how the autoharp-powered Words That Maketh Murder is connected to the tender atmospherics of Angelene, and how that ultimately evolved from the clave-flecked Down By The Water and the feminist punk of Man-Size Sextet.

Receiving a rare live outing, Dress from Harvey’s 1991 debut Dry was a huge highlight. So too was an impressively macabre rendition of To Bring You My Love, which saw Harvey seizing the opportunity to showcase her rumbling contralto range.

Perhaps most hearteningly of all, we were left with the impression that Harvey still identifies as keenly with these back catalogue classics as she does her new material. It’s a very special artist indeed that can successfully maintain the balance between both worlds: proof, if it were needed, that Harvey remains a total one-off.

Roundhouse, September 29,