NEW YORK — PJ Harvey doesn’t just sing — she becomes sound. Harvey’s growls, moans, howls and sighs dominate her music, so that when she performs, it sounds as if she’s inventing a language for heartache and despair.
Concentrating on songs that took her from rejecting love to falling in and out of it, she scoured her 12-year catalog Wednesday night at the Knitting Factory during a nearly two-dozen-song set.
Unlike, say, Courtney Love, Harvey was completely in control, even when acting a little strange. She’d shake her head and pop open her eyes when singing of madness, then step right back into being her straightforward, confident self.
However autobiographical her songs sound, she always makes it clear that she’s playing characters. In “Big Exit,” she asks for a gun — the purpose of which seems to have changed since 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea came out. Before, it sounded like she just wanted to wave it around and be fearless, thanks to finding an all-encompassing love and feeling reckless. Now, having since learned that no love is forever, she sounded as if she might use it.
Though Harvey’s music — even the love songs — deals with pain and rage, her trademark noise is completely cathartic. The song “Who the F—?” came across as less of an emotional siege than a playful primal scream. And she was definitely noisy. Harvey fleshed out the rather spare songs from her forthcoming Uh Huh Her with a trio of backup multi-instrumentalists, whose hypnotic musical flourishes were sometimes obscured by the somewhat murky sound system, especially on the delicate “You Come Through.”
But the big, lumbering riffs, with their ragged rhythms, unexpected countermelodies and eccentric guitar tunings, helped make “Shame” smolder and lent an appropriate sonic wail to “Cat on the Wall.” PJ Harvey’s music remains as raw as the pained feeling she still seems to live with.
PJ Harvey’s set list:
- “Uh Huh Her”
- “Meet Ze Monsta”
- “The Letter”
- “Big Exit”
- “Who the F—?”
- “A Perfect Day Elise”
- “Plants and Rags”
- “Good Fortune”
- “Down by the Water”
- “Cat on the Wall”
- “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore”
- “You Come Through”
- “City of No Sun”
- “There Will Never Be a Better Time”
- “To Bring You My Love”