9 albums into her career now and the illustrious, originative PJ Harvey is renowned for being someone who’s incessant on not delivering the same listening experience that her previous album before gave you. With each subsequent album, the shape-shifting Harvey has been known to change her whole appearance and persona, whilst also ensuring the concept of her new album is totally standalone to her last. She takes each album as an opportunity to showcase another side of her fruitful self, from the patriarchy-destroying garage rock of 1993′s ‘Rid of Me’, to the sparse, ethereal, war-torn arrangements of 2011′s ‘Let England Shake’.
The theme of ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ then is a little bit of a contradiction to her usual work ethos, because in a way it’s almost a follow-up to her last album, ‘Let England Shake’. If ‘Let England Shake’ was about war itself, then ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ is PJ Harvey’s report of the aftermath from the front-line.
The songs for the album were inspired by and wrote during her travels around Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C, throughout 2011-2014. On ‘The Orange Monkey’ PJ tells us that she “took a plane to a foreign land and said, I’ll write down what I find”, a simple prelude for the album.
Lead single from the album, ‘The Wheel’, was born from Harvey’s accounts of what life in Kosovo is now like for the people living there after the Kosovo War, which brought with it the massacre of innocent lives, destruction of local settlements and use of child soldiers.”Hey little children don’t disappear, i heard it was 28,000″ she sings, which may reference the amount of children unaccounted for after the war. The song tries not to dwell on the brutal accounts too much, as it’s obvious goal is to try to reinforce a sense of hope that she must’ve felt during her stay there. The wonderfully-sanguine horns heard throughout the song are an uplifting way of harbouring that feeling; that things can eventually get better for these people.
On ‘The Community of Hope’, there’s (ironically) no sense of hope in the lyrics for the subject of the song, Ward 7, a neighbourhood in Washington, D.C. Lines such as “OK, now this is just drug town, just zombies, but that’s just life” recently got her into bother with the politicians running for the council seat in Ward 7. Not only are the lyrics here slightly distasteful, but at times it feels that Harvey is being too literal, only listing her experiences and the things she came across on her visits instead of adding that storytelling aspect that would make the songs so much more of an experience for us as well. As a listener I didn’t feel like I knew much more about Ward 7 then I did before I listened, and that’s because of Harvey’s very disassociated take on life in these underprivileged areas. She may see the struggle first-hand, but she’ll never feel it in the same way as the people living there, and this comes across evidently in the words.
Hope (for the most part) and a sense of overcoming are lyrical themes at the heart of the album, but are the songs themselves hopeful? Do the songs stand up well without the cries of optimism from Harvey? Well, kinda. ‘Chain of Keys’ is a typically-PJ, blues-tinged march reminiscent of the dark delta-blues she did so well on 1995’s ‘To Bring You My Love’. On songs such as ‘River Anacostia’ and ‘The Orange Monkey’, we get to hear the celestial vocals that we all know and love her for. The orchestral arrangements on songs such as ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ and ‘Medicinals’ are nicely handled, never over-staying their welcome and always embellishing the songs. The melodies and harmonies are there, but interesting song structures and engaging lyrics that ultimately keep you coming back to an album like this are scarce.
The drawback here is that none of the songs really take that leap of faith into unknown, exciting territory. Harvey was quite literally in the passenger seat during her travels, and this is almost mirrored in the songs themselves, you never feel her take the wheel, with songs like ‘A Line In The Sand’ and album closer ‘Dollar, Dollar’ feeling more like a passive stroll through towns full to the brim with stories waiting to be told. It leaves me wondering at the end of it all, what were her true intentions for the album? Was it to enlighten and educate us on what is happening now in these areas of the world? Or was it just kinda convenient to write her next album whist on these travels? Maybe it’s a bit of both, but it’s safe to say that it feels like a fair bit of the story got lost in translation along the way.
Whilst making the album she allowed fans to come see her record some of the album live, behind glass that the public could see through and observe, without being able to interact with her. It’s funny that in the end, this is similar to the way she observed the people in these poor areas for the most part, looking through the glass of her car window, and never truly interacting with them to form the heartfelt, emotional and captivating reports from the front-line that are desperately missing from ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’.
Only PJ really knows the true nature of the ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. Only the subjects of her songs truly know what life is like in those poverty-stricken areas of the world she briefly stopped in. And us? Well we’re really none the wiser after it all, even if it was a pleasant listen.