PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

 

You wait for a bus and then a few come along at once. In agreeing to have PJ Harvey’s new album as May’s album of the month – I have long found her a singular and unflinching artist that’s made music that doesn’t seem to nod to any other artists – and then Radiohead release A Moon Shaped Pool forty-eight hours later. Music’s gain is confusion for this blog. For, as much as I love PJ, and have enjoyed The Hope Six Demolition Project‘s own character, it can’t but help have taken a back seat since I heard Burn The Witch.

But this is about the album of the month, and it’s still more than worth all our attention and review. Harvey burst onto the scene with The PJ Harvey Trio’s Dry in 1992, an angry, unafraid and powerful artist that put her own life and experience at the centre of her music. Despite her never giving much care to the mainstream’s accolades or attention, she flirted with it in the mid-00s, even garnering BRIT, Grammy and Mercury nominations (the former two, she never won), but is the only artist to have won the latter twice, with Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea, and then her previous LP, Let England Shake.

So, what does an am artist that’s been making music for 30 years have still to say? While Let England Shake drew parallels between previous world wars and the messy modern conflicts we have been dragged into, The Hope Six Demolition Project deals with a much larger focus, in reality it still addressed themes and topics that are as virulent and important as any she’s taken on over the years: poverty, deprivation, loss, race, class, and humanity. It crosses the pond to look at America (as she’s done before) and is a nakedly political record, perhaps addressing the issues in a way that a US artist couldn’t. And being Polly Harvey, it was no ordinary recording, with sessions taking place live in Somerset House as the public watched.

What is the album like? You get many of Harvey’s strongest suits – raw rock, piercing vocals and lyrics, confrontational themes and the ever presence of John Parish’s gruffness – and an unflinching gaze onto America’s most troubling issues. This has resulted in somewhat of a backlash over the pond, with residents of the Washington DC area referenced in the album and commentators both criticising her subject and her opinion. But provocation is what Harvey does, and across the eleven tracks you get an album and a message that’s clear. In The Community Of Hope’s critical words and The Ministry Of Defence’s jangling guitars and chorused vocals, fans will feel at home. It’s not just a single pace or style, with Chain Of Keys’ rumbling snares and heavy sax, while River Anacostia’s haunting wail overpowers everything else. There’s definite echoes of Stories from the City… on show, so it’ll be interesting to see if it can follow up that and its predecessor’s success and resonance. Single The Wheel (above) is the most accessible and catching record, but like many of PJ’s albums, it needs addressing as a sonic whole. That’s where the power lies.

As she gets older, perhaps the one criticism of Harvey’s canon is that as she addresses weighty and important issues in her music is that she gradually retreats herself from the centre of it. Perhaps she’s earned that right. Are these views her own? Is it simply a theme of the album? We will likely never know, but it doesn’t dim the power of her music, and most likely never will. We bandy ‘national treasure’ around too much, but while she’d never agree with it herself, I’m sure PJ Harvey deserves it more than many.

5 comments

  1. David Allison

    I’m a big PJ Harvey fan. I probably came to her a bit late, having missed her 90s early heyday (my wife’s been a fan forever), but I’ve loved her since Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. And I’ve really been enjoying the way she’s developed as an artist as she’s got older. I particularly loved the piano-led, introspective White Chalk, and Let England Shake was a really strong piece of work.

    I’m a lot less enamoured by this album than you are, Brother G. It reminds me of the album she did with John Parish, A Woman, A Man Walked by. Parish is clearly high on the mix on this album too, and you can hear in the male choruses that play off her vocals, and the very English, kind of dirge-folk sound, often at slow march pace, with mournful saxes and brass. I didn’t get on with that album very well, and I’m having the same problem with this. It’s very one-paced, and it often sounds dour, and is full of eleptical political and social lyrics that are hard to decipher and are quite exhausting to listen to.

    There was stuff like that on Let England Shake, but that album had an energy and an anger that feels lacking on this. I’ve listened to it quite a lot, but have drifted off before the end of the album a few times now. For me, there aren’t enough stand out songs and it feels quite self-indulgent.

    It is Polly, and I am sticking with it, as there’s some joy to be had in there. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near her best work.

  2. whyohwhyohwhy

    Brother David, I have a very similar standpoint to you. Stories… was such a great album (and Thom Yorke to boot, wahey), and she’s been pretty on point ever since. Let England Shake is a fantastic record. For me, this album is waning unfortunately from first listen. I have some high points, but overall it feels like an imitation of Let England Shake, but without the emotional clout or focus. Perhaps it means more in America. But it doesn’t feel like it connects from this side of the point.

    The last track is great, but it flags in the middle and as you say, doesn’t quite stay as it should. I am going to stick with it, as it’s PJ, but it’s not had the effect I’d hoped it would.

    (and Radiohead, well it knocks this into a cocked hat).

  3. misterstory

    Hi. Firstly, my obligatory apology for lack of blog-presence.

    I’m with the brotherhood. So far i’ve been disappointed with this. Let England Shake is special to me. Very special. It’s an incredible record. This does feel like an imitation … travel across the Atlantic and do the same? Unlike David I love ‘A woman, a man walk by’. I love the Parish influence, usually. But here it starts to grate. Some tracks I find proper hard work to listen to, to quote my daughter ‘it like wrecks my ears off’. There are some high points and as David says, its still Polly and its still better than a lot of albums made this year but from the high point of ‘Let England Shake’ surely the only thing you can do is try something totally different?

    • David Allison

      Totally agree with Brother Joey. It’s a dreary repetition of previous work. I like it less and less, the more time I try and spend with it. Deeply disappointing.

  4. nolankane706

    Brothers. I must apologise for not relying sooner on this. I thought I should give some time to this album as on first listen I wasn’t really feeling it. So time has been had and I’m still struggling to be honest.

    It’s not that it’s bad, it’s listenable, but there is nothing that grabs me about it. I do need to highlight that there are some songs that start off well, and get a bit weird for me. When I say weird, it’s not in an unknown, unheard way….. more like ‘what is this weird sh*t’ I’m listening to?’

    I’m mindful that I’m the odd man out in the fact that I have never really gotten into PJ Harvey, though I did like Let England Shake. I was looking forward to her progressing with this album. I’m not even sure if I’d call this a step back. More like a wrong turn.

    The cliché of ‘I’m not mad, just a bit disappointed’ comes to mind.

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