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PJ Harvey: Tiny Desk Concert

PJ Harvey performs at Tiny DeskNPR

by Ann Powers

November 17, 2023

Polly Harvey has inhabited many characters throughout her 30-year career and always dressed the part: catsuit-rocking glam queen, high-collared Victorian wraith, mini-skirted libertine, feather-adorned warrior. Bringing the story told in her latest album, I Inside the Old Year Dying to the Tiny Desk, she stands at the microphone in a draped dress the wintry color of a gray alder tree, designed by her longtime costumier Todd Lynn. Its torn elegance perfectly suits the dual role she plays in these gently ferocious songs, which originated in her novel-in-verse, Orlam. As she lets loose her inimitable razor-sharp alto, she becomes both Ira-Abel, the child who, in the aftermath of an assault, merges with the forest around her Dorset, England, home, and of the bard whose verses keep that shepherd girl alive after her vanishing.

Harvey keeps her gestures minimal as she sets her scenes and speaks through them. Matching her voice to those of her trusted collaborators John Parish and James Johnston as they invoke the forest's ghosts — the "chalky children of evermore" — she lets the fecund imagery of her lyrics resonate. At times the crowd seems stunned into silence; after her lament for Ira-Abel, "A Noiseless Noise," concludes with the notes from her acoustic and Parish's electric guitar intertwining, she coolly waits out a gap before the applause and hoots of appreciation arrive.

This is where Harvey lives as a fully realized artist: on her own artistic plane, inviting listeners to take their time to fully join her. Ending with the heart-rendingly lonesome title track from 2007's White Chalk, she connects Ira-Abel's story to her lifelong project of expressing women's solitude, pain and resistance. Exploring how human boundaries can shatter, reassert themselves or be rendered irrelevant, these songs create a contained space that echoes far beyond itself.

SET LIST

  • "I Inside the Old I Dying"

  • "A Noiseless Noise"

  • "A Child's Question, August"

  • "I Inside the Old Year Dying"

  • "White Chalk"

MUSICIANS

  • PJ Harvey: vocals, acoustic guitar

  • James Johnston: keys, acoustic guitar, violin, vocals

  • John Parish: electric guitar, drums, vocals

TINY DESK TEAM

  • Producers: Robin Hilton, Bob Boilen

  • Director/Editor: Maia Stern

  • Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin 

  • Series Producer: Bobby Carter

  • Videographers: Maia Stern, Joshua Bryant, Kara Frame

  • Audio Assistant: Ted Mebane

  • Production Assistant: Ashley Pointer

  • Photographer: Catie Dull

  • Tiny Desk Team: Suraya Mohamed, Hazel Cills 

  • VP, Visuals and Music: Keith Jenkins

  • Senior VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann

  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.