I think I saw you in the shadows” were the first words sung by P.J. Harvey at her El Rey appearance with John Parish (they’re also the first words heard on their new Island Records album, “A Woman, a Man, Passed By”). They set the stage for their mesmerizing, hour-and-20-minute concert, an evening of confessions, parlor ballads and spit-out accusations where romance turns to obsession or worse.
In “16, 15, 14,” the rhymes of a childlike counting game turn darker and more intense, ending in cacophonous heavy breathing; the narrator of the spectral barroom waltz of “Leaving California” is bereft, lashing herself because she believed “that I could live and breathe with you,” while “Cracks in the Canvas” is a spooky recitation that wonders “how do we cope with the days after a death.” When loves goes bad, it goes very bad. “Pig Will Not” is a thunderous exercise in “negation,” and the album’s title track is an almost gleeful denunciation of a “woman-man” made up of “lily-livered chicken liver parts.”
Wearing a tightly belted white dress with an art deco tiara perched asymmetrically on her head — looking either like a woodland sprite or a bride in an S&M ceremony — Harvey brought a different voice to the songs, as if they are short stories set to music, and she played a different part in each one. Against a plinked ukulele, wavering piano chords and a moaning melodica, she’s an exhausted warrior in “The Soldier,” wishing “send me home, damaged”; in “The Chair,” she’s a mournful mother, trying to maintain equilibrium against the music’s swirling “tidal madness”; she torchily bemoans the disintegrating affair of “Passionless, Pointless.”
Harvey can look glamorous, clapping her hands at the side of her face during “16, 15, 14” and sexily snaking her hips during “Rope Bridge Crossing”; during “The Chair,” she stood stock still, as if she could not comprehend what she was seeing.
These tales (taken only from Harvey and Parish’s two collaborations) are set to music that’s alternately slinky or serrated but always venomous. They’re blues, viewed through a prism that’s part Nick Cave and part Captain Beefheart (the latter’s influence made flesh by the presence of Beefheart sideman Eric Drew Feldman. The songs often seem to teeter on the edge of chaos, as Parish and Giovanni Ferrario scratch out interlocking, acid-dipped guitar parts while drummer Jean-Marc Butty pounds out ferocious tribal beats. It’s music that follows its characters into the abyss but makes its way back in enthralling style.
Harvey and Parish play the Fillmore @ Irving Plaza this Thursday, March 26.