It’s no accident that PJ Harvey’s latest album The Hope Six Demolition Project hit like a wrecking ball on the shores of America when it debuted last April. With five years in between her previous album, it was as if all the seething frustration that created the catalyst for 2011’s Let England Shake was now easily directed across the pond, to our country embroiled in political turmoil. And of course, fans were glad to let it smash right into them.
Last night, Harvey and her nine-piece band replicated the impact of the album at the fairly packed Shrine Auditorium. Flanked by a small army of sharp-suited multi-instrumentalists, Harvey brought her most ambitious album in years to life at a time when her American fans seem to need her the most.
The album’s cohesive 12-track offering is a manifesto railing against the country’s status quo and those who she believes threaten to destroy what decency we have left (*cough Trump cough*). And while rock artists who take themselves and their message too seriously can sometimes feel oppressively heavy handed in a live setting, it seemed like the crowd who gathered in LA was ready to support the message of this album and this tour.
Marching out in a procession on stage just before 9 p.m., Harvey joined her band rank-in-file as the majority of them banged on various percussion. Shouldering heavy bass drums imbued with the coat of arms from the Hope Six album cover and harnesses full of snare, the band had the precision of a military drumcore dressed in black. The show's backdrop, a grey wall of 3 dimensional boxes, felt almost like tiny individual prisons that Harvey refused to be confined by with her rumbling sax-filled sound. The bulk of brass was the other thing that became readily noticeable to any nostalgic fan who remembers her rocking out with a barebones modest four piece in the ‘90s.
Harvey held her own on sax, offering loads of blunt skonking to the mix. And when she wasn’t playing, she held it like a lightning bolt behind her thunderous band from the set opener “Chain of Keys” through the first five new album songs in the set. Her movements ranged somewhere between Broadway-style drama and Kabuki theater, draped in black like a grieving widow with spindly arms outstretched toward in the flashing floodlights that at times forced us to squint just to see her silhouette.
Harvey's salvo of tracks from Let England Shake— the xylophone plunking title track, to the smoldering chants on “The Words Maketh Murder” and the vivd imagery of economic destruction on “The Glorious Land” written about Harvey’s home country—felt like she was weaving a prophetic thread with her howls and falsettos.
The songs felt even more relevant on the heels of the conceptually dense Hope Six material. As she went back and forth between old songs and new, the band never missed a beat (literally it seemed like most of the roster played drums at least once during the set) and rotated seamlessly between sax and keyboard and guitar with fluidity that rarely stopped for tuning, adjusting or awkward silences.
The rolling sea of fans both on the floor and on both sides of the balcony jumped up like a roaring wave when Harvey finally dove into the rollicking hit “50 Foot Queenie,” and smoldering classics “Down By the Water” and To Bring You My Love which sounded much more grown up backed by her 2016 ensemble, much like her audience that has been with her for over 25 years now.
So much has happened to the ‘90s femme fatale we remember in the red dress on her “To Bring You My Love” album cover, so much to unpack in a career that has ebbed and flowed. But one thing that remains is her ability to illicit a type of collective intellectual anger from her fans and target it in a way that really can break down walls when we choose to open our eyes and give ourselves over to it. Considering the fact that we’re staring down the barrel of a Presidential election to which such walls will be vigorously debated over, we’ll need all the ammo she can supply.