New York Times - New York Live Review
December 18th 2000
POLLY JEAN HARVEY: FULLY POSSESSED OF HERSELF
Anyone who has been told by an exercise instructor to "be in your body" knows that this simple directive isn't so easy to enact. On one hand, it's ridiculous. Isn't inhabiting flesh the essence of life? Yet a little attention reveals that most people use their minds to flee their bodies, constantly analysing and projecting instead of resting in the pulsing physical self.
Polly Jean Harvey makes great rock music about the disturbing contradictions of being in a body. Yet her performance on Monday at the Bowery Ballroom suggested that only now does she feel fully possessed of herself.
The mostly rave reviews of her new album, "Stories From The City, Stories From the Sea" (Island/Def Jam), have dwelled on the personal side of this development; the album teems with love songs, happy and sad, but ultimately hopeful. In concert, the revelations were more artistic, as Ms. Harvey showed a mastery few rock artists have matched.
She made this display immediately with a solo rendition of "Rid of Me," the title track from the 1993 album that made her reputation. Tapping pedals to alter the sound of her electric guitar, modulating a voice that can shatter glass at the drop of a note, Ms. Harvey gave this vengeful cry new finesse. Only on the very last phrase did she push her voice until it cracked.
This sense of each song, as if it, too, were a body, and the willingness to dwell fully within every one, characterised Ms. Harvey's set. Her confidence was reinforced by her band, with the musicians bent on sensing each other's intuitions. They served subtlety even in unbridled attacks like "Kamikaze" and "Big Exit." Eric Drew Feldman on bass and keyboards, Rob Ellis on drums and Timothy Farthing on guitar submerged themselves within the music's dynamic shifts, sometimes switching instruments and constantly switching the lead.
Margaret Fielder, who also leads the art rock band Laika, stood out, playing guitar with an introspection that balanced Harvey's expressiveness. She also played cello on a new arrangement of "Dry" and melodica on "Down by the Water." Occasionally she left the stage altogether, and Mr. Ellis, Mr. Feldman and Ms. Harvey played as a trio, showing a leaner approach to this sinewy music.
Ms. Harvey starred in every setting without bothering with the theatricality of earlier personae. She has given up something to become so sure: the excitement of pushing recklessly past the possible. The awkwardness of Ms. Harvey's music has always been a key to its genius; her self-fabrications strained enticingly against the carnal sounds she used to express them. Everything fits better in Ms. Harvey's music now. This makes its breakthroughs more conventional.
This adjustment in no way diminishes Ms. Harvey. It allows her to claim her rightful place at the centre of rock's evolution. It's not just her own body that Ms. Harvey now completely owns, it's the anatomy of rock itself, which she now inhabits at the heart.