In her ninth studio album, “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” PJ Harvey brings her music to an entirely new level, seamlessly incorporating the political into her record. The English alternative rock musician has always been multifaceted in all art forms, from music to poetry to visual art, and this album showcases even more palpably how Harvey blends various different components together.
The 11-track album, which was released on April 15, was recorded in front of a live audience in London, a choice that only accentuated Harvey’s desire to extend the scope of her album to a global, inclusive message. The lyrics chronicle the injustices she has seen in various places around the world, and these unflinching observations are what make Harvey transcend from a songwriter to an activist. The opening track “The Community of Hope” introduces the rest of the album perfectly, but with an upbeat, ebbing melody that is out of place with much of the other tracks. “The Ministry of Defence” gets to the gritty reality of what the album is about, with a harsh, pulsating guitar riff and powerful vocals. The lyrics are particularly potent with their haunting imagery: “Human hair / A kitchen knife / And a ghost of a girl / Who runs and hides / Scratched in the wall in biro pen / This is how the world will end.” The lyrics echo the famous line from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” which is also a partially political work, and the poet is one of Harvey’s many influences.
“Line in the Sand” protests against the mindless slaughter and bloodshed that war causes, though the lyrics are sometimes generic and cliché. The lyrics remind me of when people say that they have lost faith in humanity, which is entirely unhelpful and fails to address the specific institutional powers at play. Compositionally, the song is one of my favorites, and the contrast between Harvey’s high-pitched vocals and the deep, low vocals of the background singers is exceptionally well done.
Another one of my favorites is “River Anacostia,” with its slow, melancholy melody that stays true to its name as it echoes the ebbing and flowing of a river. Harvey’s vocals are rich and distinctive, and she encompasses an impressive pitch range. The closing track, “Dollar, Dollar” is the most similar in tone to “River Anacostia,” with its eerie, rhythmic melody and beautiful, compelling vocals. The opening of the track, with voices of people from various countries revisits the theme of global integration. Three quarters of the way in, a saxophone solo brings in jazz and blues elements. The song is fitting as a closer, with the lyrics describing a boy begging for money to no avail. It is the only song in which Harvey herself is a partaker, rather than just someone reporting and describing what she sees, because the incident has a lasting effect on her: “All my words get swallowed / In the rear view glass / A face pock-marked and hollow / He’s saying dollar, dollar / I can’t look through or past / A face saying dollar, dollar.”
“Chain of Keys” stands in sharp contrast to the former song, with its distorted, sonic instrumentals, sounding like an organized march. Harvey’s vocals shine again, and the backing vocals are especially effective here. The lyrics are evocative of devastation: “The ring is in a woman’s hand / She’s walking on the dusty ground / The dusty ground’s a dead-end track / The neighbours won’t be coming back / 15 gardens overgrown / 15 houses falling down / The woman’s old and dressed in black / She keeps her hands behind her back / Imagine what her eyes have seen / We ask but she won’t let us in.”
The penultimate track, “The Wheel,” like “Dollar, Dollar,” also speaks of desolate children: “Now you see them, now you don’t / Children vanish ‘hind vehicle / Now you see them, now you don’t / Faces, limbs, a bouncing skull.” The lyrics evoke a sense of hopelessness and despair, with the same tragedies occurring over and over again in a never-ending cycle.
“Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” is not one of my favorites compositionally, but it is powerful and inspiring in its lyrical content and the way it seems to rally voices together as if in a marching protest, the repetition only reinforcing that effect. “Medicinal” stands separate to the theme of many of the other songs, not overwhelmingly political but exploring the power of nature instead: “I looked about, and what I see? / Medicinals grow around me, rising from the gravel / Sumac and the Witch Hazel / Come to soothe our primal sores, come to soothe our troubles.” The last verse, however, brings light to the real issue: “But do you see that woman, sitting in the wheelchair? / With her Redskins cap on backwards / What’s that she’s singing? / As from inside a paper wrapper / She sips from a bottle / A new painkiller.”
“The Ministry of Social Affairs” is also one of the most powerful in its message: “See them sitting, in the rain / As the sky is darkening / Three lines of traffic are edging past / The ministry of social affairs / At a junction on the ground / An amputee and a pregnant hound / Sit by the young men with withered arms / As if death had already passed.” The monotone repeated words of the background vocalists allude to the greedy, one-track minds of capitalist institutions, and the distorted, incongruous instrumentals further echo the injustice of the state of things.
“The Hope Six Demolition Project” is ambitious in its undertaking. In many ways it succeeds: Harvey’s vocals are as compelling and expressive as ever, and many of the lyrics are poignant. Fans of PJ Harvey will certainly enjoy the album, and it includes some of her best songs. As a political work, however, it is incomplete; the lyrics make often-vague allusions to the devastated state of the world, but don’t go any further than that. Harvey’s own reactions to and place in this chaos is missing, and the album lacks the concreteness it needs to be as powerful as it had the potential of being.