You don’t need a PhD in PJ Harvey to know that the alt-rock goddess does things her own way. For a while during the preview of her sensational (and sadly sold-out) Artangel collaboration ‘Recording in Progress’ at Somerset House, in which Harvey and her band are set record her new album in public behind one-way glass, it looks as if ‘her own way’ means ‘having a bit of a sit down.’ Rock ‘n’ roll!
After surrendering your phone, you’re led deep into the bowels of Somerset House, grand but stylishly crumbling at basement level, to a darkened viewing chamber where, on the other side of thick walls, a recording studio is laid out before you. It seems small, functional, a bit cluttered. There are beautifully sculptural percussion instruments, an ancient upright piano. Middle-aged guys noodle around with bits of kit. Harvey’s long-term collaborator John Parish tinkers with a bass drum. And in the middle of it all, just a few feet away on a white sofa, sits PJ herself, tiny and tired-looking, deep in conversation with producer Flood. Though she’s wired up and amplified, her West Country burr is barely audible. She pops what appears to be a throat lozenge. It doesn’t look promising.
In fact, after the initial rush of seeing the captive star up-close, it soon starts to feel conventional. Not boring conventional. After all, this is Polly Harvey sharing her creative process with you and even showing off her artwork (some of Harvey’s drawings are on display, along with what looks like a hand-drawn family crest). But the promised ‘architectural installation’ is really just a room within a room. It’s clear she’s here to work.
And then something miraculous happens. Polly writes something down, puts on headphones, takes a sip of water and launches into the refrain of a beautiful new song, recognisably from the same mould as the war-scarred soundscapes of ‘Let England Shake’: ‘All near the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln,’ she repeats in her doleful descant. It’s transfixing, even when she messes up: ‘I forgot that bit,’ she says apologetically.
And then we’re ushered out, unsure of what we’ve just seen but certain that we could have stayed much longer. What is it, this strangely brilliant hybrid event? Live art? Installation? Gig? Yes and no to all. In its gradual laying down of sounds and chipping away of faults, you could make a case for the process being almost sculptural. But, in the end, this is PJ Harvey doing things her own way. And it’s spine-tingling.
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By Martin Coomer