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PJ Harvey’s Magnetic Visions

The English rock star’s divisive new album comes into focus onstage

PJ Harvey’s latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, is one of her most peculiar records to date. It plays like an expansion of the English singer-songwriter’s 2011 record Let England Shake, on which she wrestled beautifully with the dark, deathly aftermath of World War I in her home country (and the universal ways that violence can damage humanity in any era). Now Harvey has turned her attention to the ravaged, poverty-stricken landscapes of America, and, perhaps predictably, controversy has ensued. When Harvey released the album’s second single, “The Community of Hope” — a rousing song on which she chronicles a tour around Washington, D.C., pointing out a “school that looks like a shit-hole” and referring to one neighborhood as “just drug town” — several Washington politicians spoke out against the song. One local campaign employee memorably observed that “PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.” Yet The Hope Six is one of her strongest rock albums in recent years; Harvey isn’t playing a political troll like Morgan, but a novel kind of musical journalist. While she’s typically a master of exploring dark personalities and narratives on each record, this time she’s a voyeuristic outsider.

None of this heated debate made its way to the almost fanatical crowd for Harvey’s show at New York City’s Terminal 5 on Monday. When she announced her tour for the album several months ago, it ironically included only two dates in America — one in Los Angeles and one in New York — but the demand for Harvey was so high in the city that the venue added another date. And after she and her nine-member band (featuring career-long collaborator John Parish) stomped onto the stage in marching-band form, each playing or banging a snare drum or bass drum, The Hope Six Demolition Project came to life gloriously onstage.

Opener “Chain of Keys” set the show’s ominous mood, with its froggy brass arrangements and militaristic, stomping percussion. “Imagine what her eyes have seen / We ask but she won’t let us in,” Harvey sings of the song’s mysterious protagonist — a figure she has identified as someone she saw on a trip to Kosovo, inspiring a few of the new album’s songs. With her all-male backing band singing gruff, collective backup to her unsettling travelogues, it was as though Harvey were leading a strange expedition, looking upon chained monkeys and monetary greed with equal horror. One reason The Hope Six’s political protest messages fall flat on record is because of how vague they are: “How to stop the murdering? By now we should have learned,” she sings in a high voice on “A Line in the Sand.” “If we don’t then we’re a sham.” But in person, with her band, the songs feel reenergized; the intricacies of their chamber-pop instrumental textures are more vivid when you can see them being played. And while some of her songwriting feels dismal on first listen, the feeling of this music in concert is one of hope.

Throughout her set, Harvey was largely instrument-less, aside from occasionally picking up a saxophone; she used her hands to almost literally mime the lyrics of her songs, peering around the audience as she looked upon monuments and planting her hands on the ground as she remarked sourly on a Walmart being built there. Dressed in a sheer black tunic with kimono sleeves, two little wings of black feathers in her hair like the god Mercury’s winged cap — she still hasn’t given up the crow accessories from her last tour — Harvey looked like a goth goddess, or maybe a character on Game of Thrones. I’m so used to seeing Harvey holding a guitar like one of her limbs, or leaning over a piano or an autoharp, that it felt new to see her as just a singer, dancing across the stage.

Even though a bulk of her set was playing the entirety of The Hope Six, in between Harvey sprinkled in more than a handful of older songs. She placed them in such a way that they highlighted or drew direct threads from her past material to the present, rather than just playing the big hits (fan favorites like 1991’s “Dress” or 2000’s “Good Fortune” were nowhere to be found). After playing Let England Shake’s “The Glorious Land,” where she sings of America and England’s soil being sown not with wheat or corn, but with orphaned children, she moved right into the new album's “Medicinals,” where she finds the National Mall devoid of old medicinals like witch hazel and sassafras and instead full of homeless women drinking from liquor bottles (“a new painkiller for the native people”). After working through the religious torment and demented prayers of To Bring You My Love’s title track and “Down By the Water,” Harvey played “River Anacostia,” in which she looks upon the town’s “flowing poison” sewage problem. “Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water,” her backup band sang, recontextualizing the quintessentially American, Fisk Jubilee spiritual within a setting of contemporary poverty. Even when she played her old material, Harvey seemed to take on a new character in her voice and movements, clearly marking out the sonic and visual definitions of her career — bellowing and moving like a punk rocker on Rid of Me’s “50 Ft. Queenie,” standing solemnly like a column for White Chalk’s “When Under Ether.”

PJ Harvey has sung about her visions of Jesus, of the sheela na gigs’ female abjectness, of ghosts in her house, and now of seeing the sorest spots of America’s cities. But no matter where her visions roam — even as politically detached as they seem in her latest work — once played live, they always feel emotionally urgent in ways that only Harvey can pull off. The longer she spends inhabiting other worlds and personalities in her music, the less Harvey seems like a rock star on tour and more like some powerful, traveling folk storyteller. At the end of her encore at around 10:30 p.m., Harvey and her band left the stage, but the crowd still lingered, roaring. The house lights went on, but still the crowd stood. A chant for more began to build: “PJ, PJ, PJ!” Venue employees began to move onto the stage, picking up water bottles and instruments, and still the crowd stayed. As microphones began to leave the stage, people finally began to leave, finally realizing their beloved narrator had no more stories to share that night.