Five years ago Polly Jean Harvey shattered England’s rural idyllic image with a grim picture of it’s disastrous long-lasting military involvement in the world. Although stirring up controversy is part of her rationale (e.g. not opposing to the English tradition of fox hunting), some critics labeled her previous work as her most brutal to this date. Nevertheless Harvey continues her politically charged crusade on a new LP titled: The Hope Six Demolition Project.
Let me be honest, I just can’t imagine the contemporary music landscape without PJ Harvey. With her forever autumn voice she gave she 90s alternative rock scene it’s raw edge. Thematically, she is known to focus on inner matters such as self-doubt and retribution but began looking outward about five years ago by singing about humanity’s violent side on Let England Shake (2011). As said Harvey continues her voyage of suffering on her ninth full album that lies here before us. This time she draws her inspiration from visits to the war torn Afghanistan and Kosovo, bringing back even more worldly views and tells us that large groups of people around the globe are living in hellish conditions. For this reason alone the narrative of The Hope Six is among the darkest Harvey has ever written.
Like on Let England Shake she again traveled with wartime photographer Seamus Murphy. It’s clear Murphy influenced Harvey’s observations skills for the good. On ‘Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln’, which is inspired on a visit to the Washington D.C. National Mall, she gloomily sings “[…] A black man in overalls arrives to empty the trash. Hauls it to a metal hatch, a doorway opens up to the underworld […]”. At times tracks, like ‘The Ministry Of Defense’, feel more as a shocking photograph of a desolated warzone: “Mortar holes let through the air. Kids do the same thing everywhere. They’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic and balanced sticks In human shit”. The Hope Six is filled with sharp observations like this. Frankly, It made me feel bad about humankind so I am also fairly sure a thorough listen will therefore force some kind of downheartedness upon you as well.
In terms of its instrumentation The Hope Six holds up to the standards one might expect. Still Harvey’s voice goes up front here yet on the other hand the album also summarizes the conceptual challenges she dealt with in the past years. ‘A Line In The Sand’ is a forthright follow up to the more brighter songs from Let England Shake whilst ‘River Anacostia’ spacious setting reminds of a mixture of White Chalk (2007) and a few tracks from the older Is This Desire? (1998). Harvey doesn’t shun to take a next step here and there. Jazzy influences, such as a Morphine-like, baritone saxophone on ‘Chain Of Keys’, the free jazz amidst the blues-rock grind of ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ and the laidback sax play during the light synthy Dollar, Dollar give this latest work a fresh feel as well.
In the end I have to say that The Hope Six Demolition Project was not as good as I hoped for. Feelings of discomfort predominate, partly because of the ponderous lyrics but mostly because of PJ Harvey’s sideline manner of activism. I am left wondering why and what Harvey is trying to achieve here. I, and for all I know many with me, would agree to the thesis that the living conditions of large parts of this world are outright terrible. So what’s the use singing about it? Do we have to raise our voices against war and inequality? Alas, this never becomes clear on The Hope Six. From the musical perspective the small gestures in the instrumentation of The Hope Six pieces fall on it’s right place without becoming truly innovative. The level of detail sometimes reminded me of Nick Cave’s last endeavour he released, indeed, 3 years ago.
PJ Harvey’s ninth does not mark a new highlight in her career, although because of its carefully thought-out instrumentation, does not disappoint either. On a word-by-word basis she succeeds striking listeners deep in the heart, however, due to it’s almost pretentious distance never becomes substantive.
Label: Island, 2016
- The Community of Hope (2:23)
- The Ministry of Defence (4:11)
- A Line in the Sand (3:33)
- Chain of Keys (3:09)
- River Anacostia (4:56)
- Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln (2:59)
- The Orange Monkey (2:47)
- Medicinals (2:19)
- The Ministry of Social Affairs (4:10)
- The Wheel (5:37)
- Dollar, Dollar (5:37)
Review by Wander Meulemans // 190416