PJ Harvey is an English musician, poet and writer who has reached much success with her previous works. With a career spanning almost thirty years, Harvey has worked with many different musicians and has been a part of many projects. On April 15, 2016, Harvey returned with her ninth studio album and perhaps her most ambitious project yet – The Hope Six Demolition Project.
This album is largely a musical report of the depravity Harvey witnessed firsthand on recent trips to Kosovo, Washington D.C. and Afghanistan. Travelling around with photographer Seamus Murphy, Harvey carefully observed these places and their people. She then swapped roles from being the observer to the observed when she invited the public to watch her during the recording process of the album.
First track “The Community of Hope” opens up the album with a fairly upbeat vibe, albeit the politically charged lyrics which are present throughout the album. After an observation of a neighbourhood in Washington, which Harvey was driven through to see the realities of life in the poor, crime ridden areas, she refers to some of the inhabitants as “zombies of a drug town” which of course, they didn’t take too well.
However, she was simply portraying what she had heard others say rather than this being her solely own opinion. The project is after all meant to be a musical representation of the places observed by Harvey made on her travels meaning it has to be honest not only from her own opinion but as an overall view on the place and its inhabitants.
“The Ministry of Defence” comes in with a far more serious sound. Describing vandalised derelict buildings in Afghanistan, Harvey sings about what might stereotypically be found in a place like this including graffiti, litter, broken glass and drug paraphernalia before she reveals what else is there – jawbone and human hair. She is discussing the fact that this is happening all over the world and it is leading to a destructive end.
Indeed, the lyrical content and overall presentation of this album is not by any means easy listening and these songs are all there to portray a message. Harvey’s voice is positioned front and centre in many of the songs including “Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln“, “Medicinals” and “Line In The Sand“.
The latter telling the story of a refugee camp worker who has seen the atrocities that happen in places like this such as people fighting to the death over food packages. Her vocal range in these songs allows her to provocatively present ideas and stories like these, where she can delve into the realities of what she saw and put them across in the most realistic way for the listener.
In other songs, Harvey shares vocal duties with her band. “Chain In Keys“, which shuffles along to a marching snare, led by a strong vocal from Harvey sees her backed by firm backing vocals that give the song that grandiose feeling which is ever present in Harvey’s music. Harvey sings here about an old Kosovan lady who keeps the keys of her deceased neighbours in the hope they will one day return. Never reaching any kind of huge climax, the song instead stays steady and focused on the subject in hand, accurately portraying that never ending, never changing mindset of the lady.
“River Anacostia” begins with the mellow and somewhat moody male hum before a tribal sounding drum beat introduces the pace. Harvey angelically sings over the top of a steady mellotron line, taking the song between feelings of optimism and pessimism, posing the question “what will become of us?” over and over. The song fades out as it begun – with the tribal drums rolling towards an end joined only by the deep, male vocals, sang almost like a mantra.
“The Orange Monkey” presents a more positive feel and showcases another side to Harvey’s song writing on this album. Almost sounding like a live take, the drums sound as though they have been recorded using only a room microphone, giving them a rich, wide open sound. The vocal melody paired with the clean, echoed guitar sounds like something reminiscent of the late 60’s/early 70’s but perhaps with an extra dose of maturity and grace. Harvey’s voice sound angelic again here as it floats effortlessly above the low end vocals of her backing vocals.
“The Ministry Of Social Affairs” has an obvious bluesy rock n roll influence. With its stomping tempo, its acoustic backing and the jazzy saxophone going into a frenzy to close the song, this song is a highlight not only for its uniqueness but also for the musical competency displayed.
“The Wheel” is something different again. Led by an array of saxophone, guitar and skipping drum beats, the song brings the album towards its end in style. Played with confidence, “The Wheel” is a more approachable song to the casual listener which explains why it was chosen as the lead single. Again, taking influence from rock n roll of the past, this song sounds like something you’d hear on a radio station in the 1970’s.
“All my words get swallowed”, Harvey sings in the final track – “Dollar Dollar“, a slow paced, retrospective song that closes the album on a sombre note. A wailing saxophone soars over the presumably concrete sounds that Harvey collected on her travels as the album fades out.
This project was a bold and ambitious move by PJ Harvey and on a whole, it was a success. She has never been one to be afraid of failure or being different and if this album proves anything, it is that after almost thirty years in the music business, she has still got it. Sometimes the lyrics here are bleak and at times they can feel lazy but what the album can do is mentally put you in these locations, in these scenarios and with these people that Harvey saw.
That is not to say that the content on this album is just that. The music here is great too. It seems as though for each song and for each story involved, the instruments and the structure have been thought through carefully. PJ Harvey has gone above the expectations of an album here, actively putting herself out there in the parts of the world that are struggling and not only writing good music but portraying a worthwhile message too and for that reason, this album can be considered a huge success.
PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project is out now via Island Records, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Ben Hughes