Legends and long-serving artists are coming out of the woodwork more and more in the last few years. Listeners just this year have had John Cale, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and hints of Bob Dylan. Few can say they are a legend and a long-serving artist, but that is what PJ Harvey is. Her latest track, A Child’s Question, August, is an extraordinary number from her. Dark and moody echoes on a capo-clamped electric guitar and a sternness from high-pitched vocals. What a pairing, and the brooding and sinister immediacy soon gives way to an intimate appeal, an impressive, growing track that keeps on pushing. What a start to the I Inside the Old Year Dying build-up.
Partisan Records have a monster of a track on their hands. So too do listeners who have A Child’s Question, August to digest. With Harvey on double duties of vocals and piano, the core of this recent release comes from, where else, the legend herself. John Parish joins for some well-implemented and heavy synth. It is the glue that sticks this Ben Whishaw-featuring track (yes, that Ben Whishaw) together. Love this track and tenderly so those repetitions of the final line ask for. Harvey holds out hope in a track that, much like the album to follow, holds itself close to the poetry of the artist. It is no surprise that musicians turn their hand to poetry as some new project, but few can do it well. Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and now Harvey.
Soft strokes of Love Me Tender, the track from Elvis Presley, are present in the meaning but not the sound Harvey creates. Her love for The King is touching and carries on from her poetry. Adding music to a poem is just crafting a song out of leftover fabric for some. Still, Harvey takes great care in where she lets Parish crop up with piano and drums, a shifting tide-like process that never tries to take the scope and spotlight from some demanding lyrical flourishes. Harvey is the lyrical alternative to Van Morrison, who never quite knew where his lyrics on Moondance would lead him. Instead, A Child’s Question, August, has a clear target in mind, an aim that is truthful and open to Harvey. It makes for an intimate track, one that still holds surprise and convincing order in what is very much a storm of emotive and spiritual form.
Unknitting grief, chasms of reflection and the mortality that inevitably lies at the bottom, Harvey strikes through with a touching and brutal track of self-reflective qualities. There are slip ups here or there, where it is not the lack of clarity that causes trouble but the lack of grounding. Harvey has earned and demanded the right to prove elusive, and on such an open track there are pockets of cloudy judgement. Whether that balance is struck will prove itself in the long run, it is hard to pass much judgement on a track that feels a part of something more, something more significant. Strokes of reflection and tenderness shoot through with experiences that place Harvey back in her past, in the arms of her influence and of those who she admires or was inspired by. It makes A Child’s Question, August, quite the beast.