On record PJ Harvey‘s I Inside the Old Year Dying is a knotty, fragile creation. Sparse and intense, it’s a difficult, but ultimately fulfilling listen.
Fears it might feel underpowered in a live context are blown away within seconds of her taking the stage for the first of two sold out shows at the Camden Roundhouse.
The album, her first for seven years, is played in full in a theatrical performance elegantly staged by Ian Rickson.
School bells ring to call us to attention as Harvey and her excellent band lead us through the 12-song set inspired by Orlam, her book of fictional narrative poetry told in her own Dorset vernacular.
Dressed in all white, Harvey ghosts about the stage, swooping bird-like one moment, reaching to mime picking fruit from a tree the next.
What seems fuzzy and slow to reveal itself on record, is vivid and immediate here.
Harvey’s voice, particularly on the higher notes is pristine and longtime collaborator John Parish‘s understated arrangements are clear and the playing precise.
As on the record, field recordings – bird song, children’s laughter – flitter in an out, as Harvey sings, often lit in a spotlight like a beacon.
She says little between songs, except to introduce special guest Colin Morgan.
Merlin actor Morgan reprises his backing vocals on the album’s haunting title track and steps in for fellow thesp Ben Whishaw on the warm-hearted August.
As the first half concludes with the rumbling growl of The Noiseless Noise, there’s a sense of the shackles being thrown off.
Harvey briefly leaves the stage as her backing band: Parish, drummer Jean-Marc Butty, and multi-instrumentalists James Johnston (Gallon Drunk) and Giovanni Ferrario, move to the front to perform The Colour of the Earth.
The singer returns and embarks on a series of carefully curated versions of songs from her back catalogue.
The Words That Maketh Murder, another song from Let England Shake, with Harvey on autoharp is exciting and evocative in equal measure.
She dons an acoustic guitar for a solo rendition of The Desperate Kingdom of Love, before things get heavier, angrier and dirtier with Angeline, Mansized and To Bring you My Love.
“It’s nice to play in London, my second home after Dorset. Thank you for being so friendly,” Harvey says before introducing her band and taking her bows.
Roared on by a crowd baying for more, they return for an encore starting with the rousing, guttural Blues of C’Mon Billy.
She then cools the mood once more with the title track from 2007’s White Chalk with its haunting final lines about a pregnant woman with blood her hands.
Then, looking slightly embarrassed by the rapturous reception from the audience, and with a final thank you, she is gone.