This may be Harvey’s weakest album in some time, but its sonic ambition reaffirms how exciting the artist remains.
The Hope Six Demolition Project is the logical follow-up, however belated, to PJ Harvey’s last album, Let England Shake. That LP cast Harvey as a historian of her country’s labored past, examining failures of the 19th and 20th centuries to tacitly explain those of the 21st. Its political multivalence was matched by an all-encompassing approach to folk music that made for one of her all-time best albums. But if that album was the work of someone whose very existence is wrapped in centuries of social, political and territorial history, her latest finds her in the role of a reporter. Here, she is a visitor to other lands, where she finds legacies of horror similar to those that shaped England.
As a spectator, however, Harvey cannot replicate the lived experience of her 2011 masterpiece, and at times she even comes off like a blithe tourist. The album arrives on a wave of backlash from residents of Washington D.C.’s Ward 7 regarding opener “The Community of Hope,” and it’s not hard to understand their objections. “A well-known pathway of death,” Harvey sings, and the hastily added “At least that’s what I’m told” only compounds her blatant remove from what she’s describing. Passing the buck to whomever showed her the area comes off as a calculated move to try and dam against the criticism she swiftly received.
That’s not to say that Harvey doesn’t reach her usual standards. “Chain of Keys” revisits the Kosovo crisis by way of an old woman watching property for neighbors who will never return. “The Wheel” is a lament for lost children and the terrible normalcy of kids dying or vanishing for all manner of horrible reasons. “The Ministry of Defence” is a harrowing image of infrastructure in total collapse, of order overrun by chaos in government halls where “They’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/ And balanced sticks in human shit.” In these moments, where Harvey fully steps out of any attempt to speak for anyone and simply relates what she’s seen from the perspective of an outsider, Harvey’s poetry is ironically at its most intimate.
Too often, however, the artist diverts from reportage into sudden character profiles that detract from the overall point of her stories. “Medicinals,” for example, meditates on the land that is now D.C. back when it belonged to Native Americans, only to gradually shift from its evocative thoughts on the natural remedies that grew there to a homeless woman in a Redskins cap, the kind of makes-you-think contrast that collapses when you think about it for even a second. “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” attempts a subtler approach, stepping away from monuments of schismatic American conflicts to a young boy teasing the Pavlovian responses of birds hopping eagerly at his empty hand. Yet here the result is too poetic by half, giving the song the sensation of at once being didactic and abstract.
The best aspect of the album is how hard-edged it sounds. Harvey long ago washed off the sludge of her early rawk years and put on the roguish gowns of baroque pop, but The Hope Six Demolition Project splits the difference between her art-folk instrumentation and the ragged alt rock of Dry and Rid of Me. “The Ministry of Defence” clangs with a stop-start industrial riff that turns guitars and drums into pneumatic presses, while “The Ministry of Social Affairs” builds squall around an extensive sample of the old Jerry McCain blues number “That’s What They Want,” adding scabrous noise to the original song’s sardonic view of money. There are also the arty compositions of “River Anacostia,” with its upright bass plodding underneath a group chant, and “A Line in the Sand,” underpinned by chiming guitar and bleats of saxophone at a soaring register redolent of punk-folk “The Glorious Land” from Let England Shake. If the album’s lyrics sometimes suffer from the performance art gimmick of Harvey building them out of poetry, the instrumentation benefits demonstrably from the live demos. This may be Harvey’s weakest album in some time, but its sonic ambition reaffirms how exciting the artist remains.