PJ Harvey delivered a rousing show Tuesday night at the Masonic, drawing heavily on her latest two albums, which mine the somber state of our current global politics.
These albums, “Let England Shake” (2011), and last year’s “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” investigate the dark mix of history, violence, poverty and state power on a global scale. The songs are beautiful, arresting and uncomfortable, at turns. Played live Tuesday, they took on great urgency and ferocity, shedding some of the inertness that mutes their power on the recordings.
Harvey in recent years has traveled to the troubled lands of Kosovo, Afghanistan and inner-city Washington D.C. to inform her songwriting. The result is a sort of a sonic journalism of hope and despair on a global scale, and a departure from her earlier work, which tended to be more mystical and spiritual, offering connections to other worlds, ethereal realities.
On Tuesday, she offered a few morsels to fans eager to hear her hits from the mid-1990s, when she emerged as one of the leading artists of the alternative rock-punk scene. When she played “50ft Queenie,” “Down by the Water” and “To Bring You My Love,” the sold-out crowd at the Masonic exploded, grateful for the rawer, more emotional songs they knew by heart from years of overplaying them.
On this tour, and on the new albums, Harvey trades her guitar for a saxophone. On Tuesday, she was backed by an excellent eight-member band, most notably celebrated jazz and rock saxophonist Terry Edwards. Her longtime collaborator John Parish was absent, having to leave the tour to return to England. The weight of the brass instruments gives the music a deep propulsion, grounded and driving.
To close her set, Harvey sung “River Anacostia” from her latest album, a mournful homage to the polluted river that flows into Washington D.C. She weaves the tales of the toxic river around the chorus from the traditional African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” a biblical hymn about escape and deliverance. In the song, Harvey asks repeatedly, “What will become of us?”
It’s a fair question. Rock stars get older and evolve, along with — or away from — their fans. This is not a new predicament.
Harvey’s move towards the world, to wade into its sorrow and use her art to pull apart the nastiness and thorniness of our modern world can be dazzling and laudable, even at the expense of her music remaining earthbound.