PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project – Politically poetic

Mandi Goodier

PJ Harvey delivers a politicised album about story-telling, community and observation. The Hope Six Demolition Project is smart, poetic, devastating, incredibly beautiful and will leave you thinking. 

PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

The Hope Six Demolition Project

4 stars

PJ Harvey has moved a long way from her noise-blues roots. The aggression of her earlier albums was an awakening to young women of that generation—with visceral, bodily songs, and although they adopted mythical tales, they were raw, feminine and very personal.

Her recent albums have not only moved away from the heavy sounds of those of the early 90s, they have changed lyrically. Instead of looking inside herself, Harvey is thinking big, telling of her perception of a larger place. Melodies too have become more delicate and varied culminating in 2011's phenomenal, Mercury Award winning, Let England Shake.

Five years on and Harvey has returned with The Hope Six Demolition Project. The album sits perfectly next to its 2011 sibling; complete with marching drums, horns and bold story-telling all of which blend together evoking a strange, displaced sense of patriotism and political upheaval. 

Harvey wrote the album over a four-year period while travelling between Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC. The album’s stark references of communities, graffiti-stained walls, memorials and patriotism, blur cultural difference.

"When I'm writing a song I visualise the entire scene. I can see the colours, I can tell the time of day, I can sense the mood, I can see the light changing, the shadows moving, everything in that picture," says Harvey. "Gathering information from secondary sources felt too far removed for what I was trying to write about. I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with."

The title immediately politicises the album by referring to Hope VI, a plan by the United States Department of Housing and Development."They're going to put a Walmart here" she sings in opening track "The Community of Hope", followed by the debris of capitalism in the next song "Ministry of Defense", "This is the ministry of remains, fizzy drinks cans, magazines, broken glass".  Harvey is astute enough to realise the act means gentrification—the cultural cleansing of an area, where a Walmart becomes as much a signifier of small town success as the memorial statues in Washington DC signify America's violent political history.

 

"Gathering information from secondary sources
felt too far removed for what I was trying to write about. 
I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and
meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with."

 

 

Harvey has already faced harsh criticism among some US commentators with the opening track, interpreting her words as an attack on America's poor. But dig a little deeper, and you may find the stark contrasts between Walmart, syringes and plastic spoons, those patriotic marching drums, song titles of imposing government ministries, and indeed those memorials in DC; Harvey's criticisms aimed much higher.

This is echoed when the album takes a brief vacation from the US to Kosovo and Afghanistan—and the association of the war-torn lands with America is immediately apparent. The lyric"We got things wrong but I believe we also did some good," from "A Line in the Sand" is a sentiment that rings true all too often when it comes US and UK military intervention.

As the album proceeds, its references become more ambiguous: people, places all blur and all suffer the same afflictions; beggars and amputees line the streets of scarred communities. The album is perhaps at its darkest when it reaches the penultimate track "The Wheel". The wheel itself seems to be caught somewhere between the swing carousel, a symbol of childhood, and a mechanical, revolving wheel, something they are chained to.

The children are flung out into the air on "metal chairs hung on chains...", and Harvey sings "Hey little children don't disappear... Now you see them now you don't... Faces, limbs, a bouncing skull." Answering Harvey's call comes the chorus response "I heard it was 28,000". Alongside the figure of a blind man singing in Arabic, these scenes evoke that of a war-zone; bombs, kidnapped children, devastation. But this figure actually comes from the gun crime statistics in the US: "For every US soldier killed in Afghanistan during eleven years of war, at least 13 children were shot and killed in America." Over an eleven year period this amounts to 28,000.

 

With each new release, PJ Harvey manages to push herself into new territories, emphasising the art, thought processes and the experiences that construct an album are as important as its craft. This album was recorded on site at Somerset House in London. Audiences could view the recording process through a one-way mirror. Place and people are a central theme to  this album, but more than that, it is about the observation of groups of people and culture—as the promotional video, directed by Seamus Murphey, portrays beautifully (see below).

Much like Let England Shake, which told of the horrors of WWI, The Hope Six Demolition Project betrays PJ Harvey the storyteller. Through her words, we are able to see faraway lands and devastated communities pitted alongside powerful vocal and simple but intricate instrumental arrangements—but if you were looking for hope, you came to the wrong place. 

Once concerned that she was too introspective to be political (speaking of her 1992 album Dry), Harvey is now an elder when it comes to discussing the bigger picture, but the gloomy picture she paints is told through her eyes, offers no solutions, and is likely to leave you feeling a little cold—not that this is a negative sensation, any music with the power to provoke emotion is a wonderful thing, in that sense this is a fully accomplished album.

And as philosopher Nietzsche once said of Pandora's box: "Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man."

Read more articles by Mandi Goodier