PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy – The Hollow Of The Hand
The last time I saw PJ Harvey was through a one way window at Somerset House that allowed visitors to watch and listen to the recording of her new album. It was an unusual and intriguing introduction to her new album in its infant phase.
Eight months later, at the Royal Festival Hall, she allowed us to witness the next stage of the new material’s evolution with a two night performance of The Hollow Of The Hand. This time it was a stripped down recital of ten songs featuring John Parish and James Johnston (there seemed to be more musicians present in the recording session). The work was given a much more rounded context by being presented alongside the photography of Seamus Murphy. Harvey and Murphy travelled to three destinations – Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC – between 2011 and 2014, gathering imagery and ideas for a collaborative book of photos and poems. This material formed the inspiration (and sometimes lyrics) for her new songs and we were told the project will also spawn a feature film.
The evening was split into three sections, concentrating on each territory individually. Each section began with a short film by Murphy, sometimes including clips featuring Harvey, as they explored their surroundings. The films were followed by Murphy being interviewed by journalist Anthony Loyd, while a selection of his photos of the people and places they visited were projected onto a huge screen above the band. The musicians, like the audience, listened to the photographer’s often dark stories of massacre sites, strange rituals, a close escape from an ambush and the peculiarities of every day life in a foreign land.
Harvey’s songs followed the interviews and were interspersed with poems, which she stood and recited at the side of the stage, away from the band. The tone and pace of the songs felt less raw than some of her earlier work, with melodies and repetitions that easily engaged the listener. However, the subject matter was often extremely heavy – the debris of war and the results of conflict and isolation. The Wheel (Kosovo) cried out with a haunting chant about disappeared children, Dollar Dollar (Afghanistan) pivoted on the call of a beggar and displayed a weirder, more sparse and slower feel,while Homo Sappy Blues (Washington DC) threw around the dangers of life in the neighbourhood of Anacostia where someone has been killed for their shoes.
The music is enticingly hypnotic and the serious context of the subject matter perhaps made the audience both more focused on absorbing the meaning and more subdued and thoughtful in its response. It was Harvey’s delivery of her poems that seemed to most memorably crystallise some of the subjects being explored, allowing her words to ring out against the images that had already pierced our consciousness. One of the final poems from the Washington DC section focused on a cemetery and included a line suggesting that there were ‘no walls, so the dead can run around’. The photography, poetry and music of The Hollow Of The Hand combined to create a space in which memories, issues and ideas from these three very different parts of the world had the space to run around and tell their story. Stories that were fascinating, disturbing or thought-provoking and which will continue beyond the book, album and evening…
PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy – The Hollow Of The Hand. Review by Imelda Michalczyk & Photography by Seamus Murphy. Royal Festival Hall, London 9 October 2015.
Imelda has her own great website here: www.rebeladelica.com