In the five years since her Mercury prize winning album ‘Let England Shake’, Polly Jean Harvey has been casting her gaze beyond the confines of her home country which so greatly influenced that record. Based on her firsthand experiences of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C., ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ is impressed with an almost journalistic quality, but also builds on her distinctive musical approach.
The gritty guitar strum, monotone piano chime and insistent drumbeat of album opener ‘Community of Hope’ creates a fresh and uplifting backdrop for Harvey’s tremulous and powerful vocal performance. The problem, though, is what she’s singing. Ironic political commentary aside, the casual matter-of-fact style of the lyrics (“the school just looks like a shit hole” “They’re gonna put a Walmart here”) seems lacking in invention and poetic shrewdness. This is probably down to them being drawn from the words of Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman as he drove her around Ward 7, a low-income area of Washington. The comments are so throwaway, in fact, that the mythical Walmart so rapturously vocalised is apparently not even being built.
Lyrically, a lot of the tracks suffer from the same bluntly observational style. In particular, the military stomp of ‘The Ministry of Defence’, where dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson makes a dutiful appearance, reads something like a morbid game of I spy (“fizzy drinks cans, magazines, broken glass, a white chalk board, syringes, razors, a plastic spoon, human hair, a kitchen knife”). There are some more inspired moments, however. In ‘River Anacostia’, for instance, the gentle invocation of old slave-song ‘Wade in the Water’ forms an entrancing rhythm for the fluid emotion of Harvey’s vocals.
The usual henchman, producers Flood and John Parish, are both present and musically much of these songs follow the same lines as ‘Let England Shake’. The shrill falsetto is still present on tracks like ‘A Line in the Sand’, and the male backing vocals on ‘Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln’ and ‘The Orange Monkey’ recall moments from her previous album.
The saxophone is an interesting textural addition on a number of tracks, though. A beefy sax drawl underpins the chain-gang call and response of ‘Chain of Keys’, the ethereal blasts on ‘The Wheel’ add to a driving hand-clapped rhythm, and the screeching free jazz of ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ is an eclectic diversion. In ‘Dollar Dollar’, however, it unfortunately creates a more after-hours cocktail jazz effect, diverting the haunting lyrical imagery of a begging child to something more akin to a seedy barroom where a few lingering patrons slouch among the dying embers of a nights cigarette ash.
Harvey’s blunt observations of societies wrecked by battle and ruined by politics are undoutably not without merit, but a lack of creativity seems to hamper their communication here. Part of the problem may be that the album should be appreciated as part of a greater work. Many of the stark narrative snapshots appear in other forms in Harvey’s poetry collection, ‘The Hollow Of The Hand’, and a full length film is reportedly in production. For now though, this album offers some flashes of musical brilliance to enjoy while contemplating just what the overall message is.
‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ is out on the 15th April 2016 via Island records and Vagrant
This PJ Harvey review was written by Tadgh Sheils, a GIGsoup contributor.