PJ Harvey spent a number of years preparing for her latest record. Alongside photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy, the English musician travelled to Afghanistan, Kosovo and certain parts of Washington DC in order to learn about the effects of poverty and war. This field-trip led to the release of a book of poetry and photography called The Hollow of the Land. Converting certain poems into lyrics, Harvey set to work on producing The Hope Six Demolition Project.
This record is certainly not for the easily disturbed: the guitar-work on ‘The Ministry of Defense’ is quite intimidating. The stilted rhythm is relentless and impossible to ignore, like a continual knock at the door. This song is about a derelict building in an Afghan war-zone. Harvey’s lyrics remain objective throughout, aside from one chilling prophecy at the end of each chorus: “This is how the world will end”. The withholding of any personal opinions or judgments is significant. In doing so, Harvey is able to point the listener’s attention more directly to the song’s focal point: the aftermath of war.
However, judgment is not absent from the entire album. Old Polly Jean got herself into a bit of bother earlier this year with the release of single ‘The Community of Hope’. The song describes a tour of the working-class neighborhoods of Washington DC in which crime and poverty are rife. With lyrics that warn “They’re gonna put a Wal-Mart here!”, Harvey’s intention was to highlight certain flaws in the ‘corporation-friendly’ US government. However, lines like “OK now, this is just drug town, just zombies” and “that school that looks like a shit hole” provoked an angry letter from real residents of the neighborhood, who were deeply offended by some of Harvey’s lyrics. They claimed that she had “reduced the dignity” of certain members of the community. Controversy aside, it should be noted that, musically, ‘The Community of Hope’ is a good track and surprisingly uplifting. It’s well-placed as an album opener.
Listening to The Hope Six Demolition Project gives the sense of being witness to something important or shocking. Sometimes, the listener is lured into a song by a catchy or rousing melody (or a sample as on ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ which opens with an extract from 1955 single ‘That’s What They Want’ by Jerry McCain). Suddenly, perhaps thirty seconds in, the music will take a turn and the subject matter is pulled into grim focus. This creates a sense of unease in tracks like ‘Chain of Keys’ and ‘A Line in The Sand’ (which are both excellent). ‘River Anacostia’, meanwhile, is just plain creepy.
First-released single ‘The Wheel’ is utterly harrowing. This track chronicles the violent deaths of children in Kosovo. Harvey plainly describes successive events: watching children playing on swings, the children’s deaths, their subsequent memorials. She quotes the figure “I heard it was 28,000” and repeats “Now watch them fade out” to close the track. It feels as if Harvey is perhaps calling into question the way in which the world ‘watches’ these atrocities: passively and without proper intervention.
This is a memorable record which provokes thought about gravely important issues. While lyrics might not be received as intended, Harvey’s command of music is – as always – outstanding. At best, her musical talent combines with meaningful lyrics to create powerful songs. At worst, her musical ability is strong enough to carry any track through lyrical clumsiness (like on the wordily-titled ‘Near The Memorials to Vietnam And Lincoln’). The Hope Six Demolition Project is certainly able to carry the torch of its renowned predecessors. The Peej has done it again. And this time with chanting. There’s lots of chanting.
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.