During PJ Harvey’s Sunday night set, one of the repasts offered by Coachella before festival headliner Kanye West commanded the main stage, a fan waved a homemade sign that got caught on camera. “PJ Harvey,” it read, “is the REAL closing headliner.” The crowd cheered, the sentiment validating the feverish loyalty Harvey’s listeners trade in, the kind that almost feels sealed by blood oath.
Outfitted in a white dress corseted at the waist like a parlor-bound Victorian wife, her sculptural feathered headpiece shooting back from her obsidian hair, Harvey looked ready for the Wild West’s dreamscape, ready to hitch her covered wagon to the trash-strewn grounds. Cradling an autoharp in her arms, Harvey, in her Coachella debut, assessed the crowd with a benevolent gaze that seemed as if it could snap into menace if provoked.
Harvey played with her old pal and frequent collaborator John Parish at her side, and her set marched out war-scarred testaments from her latest album, “Let England Shake,” and a few older songs, such as “The Sky Lit Up,” played with more chug than the original, a sense of certainty replacing the near-hysteria.
“When I stand on the stage,” Harvey said, in an interview earlier in the day, “I want to give the truth.” We were speaking in her cavernous artist’s trailer on the Polo Grounds, about how she tried to avoid repeating her work. Over the course of eight albums, Harvey has cut a snake’s trail through heartsick alienation, and now with her latest, a nation’s embattled history. “It wouldn’t be honest of me,” she said, “to keep drawing from my past.”
With songs such as “Rid of Me,” Harvey whispered and screamed a message: It was acceptable to be difficult, brutal even, in love. But it’s a feeling that’s distant to her now. “I still love that song, but I wrote it many years ago,” she said. “There are other things I want to play now.” Has she moved away from writing personal screeds? “I would hesitate to say that any of my work is personal… you step into characters.”
For “Let England Shake,” two years in the making, Harvey was drawn to the characters of her country, particularly voices lost to time or the patriotic machine. “I wanted to use human language,” Harvey said, “not overt political language. I wanted to inhabit the lives of those who have been affected, not the political leaders.”