Polly Harvey is making her next album in unorthodox fashion, first inviting members of the public to watch recording sessions as though they were art installations in January. This weekend she aired 10 completed songs as part of a book launch.
The Hollow of the Hand mixes Harvey’s first published poems with pictures by war photographer Seamus Murphy. He took the musician to a near deserted Kosovo, chaotic Afghanistan and a Washington DC that was not so perfect in comparison. Their combined reportage consisted of a series of stark images, lyrical and visual. Here Murphy talked the audience through his pictures while Harvey both read and sang with her small band.
She clearly found her brief time in these troubled places (including Anacostia, a deprived neighbourhood of the US capital) to be creatively fertile. Murphy said that one week in Afghanistan prompted “months and months of writing”. The new songs, sometimes sharing lines with the poems, included the military rhythms of Chain of Keys and the ironically upbeat The Community of Hope. It featured the most depressing chorus of all: “They’re gonna put a Wal-mart here.”
Powerful though they were, her words couldn’t hope to match Murphy’s pictures of airstrike aftermaths, and Afghans with faces like novels, for immediate impact. Their combined efforts made for an evening that will be hard to forget.