Three out of the four musicians backing up Polly Jean Harvey on Monday night at the El Rey Theatre wore fedoras onstage -- encouraging news for those who mourn the death of millinery, and that's setting aside Harvey's own white Art Deco headpiece, which called to mind a crowned rack of lamb.
Since her emergence in the early 1990s as one of the most daring voices in alternative rock, Harvey has become something of a style icon. Yet the English singer's love of clothes always has seemed less a devotion to fashion than an interest in costume, another way to embody the characters she describes in her songs.
Monday's concert with John Parish came a week before the release next Tuesday of "A Woman a Man Walked By," Harvey's powerful new duo album with her longtime collaborator. (It belatedly follows up "Dance Hall at Louse Point," released in 1996.) Unlike the records she makes as PJ Harvey, on which she calls all the artistic shots, "A Woman" is the product of a 50-50 creative union: Parish writes the music, Harvey writes the words. The result often has the feel of performance art, with Harvey pushing her voice to its various extremes. Throughout the album's 10 tracks, she alternately speaks, screams, croons and whispers.
The music felt even more theatrical at the El Rey, where Harvey physicalized her and Parish's story-songs with a kind of off-the-cuff choreography: In the new album's jagged punk-blues title cut she laid into the "lily-livered" man who wronged her, careening around the stage as if the microphone were emitting electric sparks. In "The Soldier" she hovered motionless while Parish strummed a ukulele. During "Pig Will Not," a blunt declaration of refusal, Harvey gave her best impression of Iggy Pop, spitting the words into the audience like they were poison in her mouth.
The musicians faltered somewhat in slower, quieter material from "A Woman" and "Louse Point," drifting into an atmospheric torpor that sounded as though it was waiting for an actual song to show up.
A gorgeous rendition of "Passionless, Pointless" was an exception. Here Harvey offered her listeners a route into the music's dark interior rather than leaving them stranded at its edges.
There was little banter during the 80-minute set -- Harvey was wary perhaps of puncturing the heady dramatic space she'd created onstage. When one audience member responded with unexpected enthusiasm to her introduction of a song called "The Chair," though, she couldn't help making fun of the exceedingly banal title.
That glimpse of the actor behind the role made you wonder what else was lurking beyond the facade.