2011’s Let England Shake was PJ Harvey’s masterstroke. An album that looked at England’s role throughout the 20th century and the part it played in international conflicts. It was political and a change in direction for the singer – a move away from the stark electric guitars that saw her standing west of Sharon Van Etten in the neighbourhood of early Breeders (if they had a flair for blues) by way of Neil Young in her found voice.
That album made critics who had dismissed her as another angst rock singer sit up and take notice, acknowledging a single-minded commitment to the album’s vision. So with the geopolitical The Hope Six Demolition Project, expectation was high and it’s clear in that five year interim, PJ Harvey has been anything but idle. Opening track, The Community of Hope paints a disparaging portrait of Washington’s Anacostia that unfurls into a commentary about a homeless populace of “zombies” and “shithole” schools through the narrative of a tour guide. It’s a cut above the boil-in-the-bag rhetoric of innumerable openers, taunting those disposed to sober bystanding and instead, the listener is dragged into line with PJ Harvey’s vision. As the album plays out D.C. and then Kosovo and Afghanistan are also scrutinised with an intensity that is resolute. The politics of change and improvement schemes juxtaposed with a reality where unsafe housing projects are launched only to be unworkable. Harvey walks a tightrope in commentary and hope, offset by her heartbroken indie rock tempo.
Track Medicinals is most similar to Let England Shake with its mounting saxophone and slower more experimental moments. But the contrast between this sprawling yet nippy run-around and the more haunting crafted pieces Harvey fronted on Let England Shake is glaring. The album, as a full body of work, harks back to early day PJ Harvey, the stark, heavily strummed Stories From The City, Rid of Me and Dry. Its 11 tracks are stuffed with keys, horns, guitars, drums, though never do they seem overly textural. With all these array of instruments at her disposal, the sound – much like the inspiration for the album – travels great distances. Nowhere is this clearer than The Ministry of Social Affairs, where the simple beginning gives way to PJ Harvey’s smooth, then squalling voice. Blues is accelerated throughout and is most prevalent on River Anacostia where PJ Harvey and her band chant hauntingly; “Wait in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water,” and musically the clangs and booming sounds wouldn’t be amiss from a Mick Harvey era Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album. These reflective testimonials smoulder the album.
The Hope Six Demolition Project was recorded in the basement of London’s Somerset House behind one-way glass in front of people who paid to watch. Amid the recording, there’s clearly real inspiration for her as she released a book of poems The Hollow of the Hand, which is how the majority of these songs took form – from poems written while travelling. Creatively it is clear that she has stretched herself far beyond her comfort zone and has taken a big risk. Because of this, sometimes the album isn’t as cohesive as previous storytelling narratives such as on Songs From the City. This is simply because the scope of coverage has stretched the album too thinly. While heart-breaking laments about children dying in Kosovo pepper The Wheel, the storytelling is pulled abruptly in different directions. When she proclaims that despite doing wrong there was also some right, it feels like she is weighing up two opposing viewpoints song-by-song. This is cogent, reflective songwriting, and such is her ingenious zeal that any impulse to be critical is ultimately undercut by something closer to respect.
Throughout the record, Harvey demonstrates yet again her infernal gift for singing; but her main commitment is to more serious stuff. It’s an album of shifting perspective, and much like on Let England Shake she draws on issues surrounding the community she visits. What’s unclear is why? The singer offers listeners no resolution. It’s almost as if she wishes to remind us that these places exist and are in need, but it’s an open interpretation to the album. If Let England Shake was the first act and The Hope Six Demolition Project the second, it will be her next album that will offer a further explanation and insight into this prolific political work. Despite this, PJ Harvey remains as dynamic and unflinchingly uncompromising as ever. This new album may be slightly more tempered, lyrically, but as a musical chameleon whose strong suit is adopting different personas she is an artist ever willing to experiment, take risks and make a daring move like this one.
That’s The Hope Six Demolition Project’s strongest attribute. The vibrant and varied arrangements show off why she still stands above her contemporaries. While others ape and copy, PJ Harvey not only knows her way around a hook but can handle political concepts and themes all within a storytelling arc without them ever being to the detriment to her songs.
Using her insights as a vehicle for ambitious compositions some people may condemn an album cynically pointing out problems, but PJ Harvey has never been one to fit the mould. Long may it continue.