PJ Harvey is an artist who inspires fierce devotion in her fans, and as such, is perfectly suited for an iTunes Sessions release, which can tend to be required listening only for hardcore fans or those who fancy themselves completists. Harvey recorded this set on the heels of Let England Shake, so it leans heavily toward that material, including the title track, a loose and rolling version of “The Words That Maketh Murder,” a bright “The Last Living Rose” (which may be one of Harvey’s best songs in years) and a version of “Written On The Forehead” in which the sample of Niney the Observer’s “Blood & Fire” fades deeper into the song and forms an even more dreamlike base than it does on the studio version.
Also included here is a somewhat leaden run through of “Angelene” from Dry and two songs from To Bring You My Love: “C’mon Billy” and a grown-up rendition of one of Harvey’s most well known songs, “Down By The Water,” that sounds as if much of the dirt and grime were scrubbed from the original. Notably, “Little fish/ big fish/ swimming in the water/ come back here, man/ give me my daughter” is sing-song-y and enunciated rather than panting. The new ending is marvelously effective in the same way that the movie psycho who simmers beneath the surface is scarier than the one who foams at the mouth and chews scenery.
Throughout, the playing is tight (even with a smaller band than in the studio versions, there is still a whole lot going on) and the sound is clean; so clean, in fact, that it sounds like Harvey has been turned into some sort iPJ and imprisoned in an Apple Store.
The interview material included in the full album download is a mixed bag. Harvey is a tough (but interesting) interview. She doesn’t give much away, and though the interviewer tries gamely, Harvey, who used to obfuscate by shape shifting now contents herself with circuitous responses to essentially meaningless queries. We do learn that Harvey, a prolific multi-instrumentalist, picked up the sax again for the recording of Let England Shake, and that she considers herself primarily a writer, and that she is so very, very, very English, and likely spends her days writing lyrics, poems and short stories while sipping tea on some grey country estate (but that last part is left to our imaginations for the most part).
The missed opportunity with these iTunes Sessions releases is that they do not take into account the iPod, iPad and iSuite of devices’ multimedia capabilities. For instance, when Harvey and the interviewer are discussing the often visually stunning series of short films photographer Seamus Murphy made for the songs on Let England Shake, (some of which can be found on Harvey’s site) wouldn’t it be wonderful if the device were playing clips from the films on the screen? It would, indeed.