Following on from her Mercury Prize winning album Let England Shake in 2011, PJ Harvey brings us her ninth album, one that moves beyond the political and troubled landscape of England to the deprived areas of Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington D.C. The singer has become a kind of Wilfred Owen of rock music – bringing you harrowing insights from scenes of gross conflict, troubled political systems and all the while questioning “why?” This theme was the case for Let England Shake and it has simply been extended for The Hope Six Demolition Project.
Opening with single ‘The Community of Hope’ we are given a grim description of a Washington D.C. community where the school just “looks like a shithole” and how “they’re gonna put a Wal-Mart here.” It’s clear that hope is not in abundance in this community as the title ironically indicates. Although Harvey has singled out this particular community, it is not unique in its run down suburban kind of depravity. It’s very easy to envision this kind of depravity because it is of the kind that’s close to home despite the singling out of this one community in Washington D.C. And perhaps this is the point. What Harvey describes in the song could easily describe a multitude of other areas. The ominous reference to “they” that intend to build a Wal-Mart serves as a reminder of capitalism and corporations above the unique local-ness that is evidently being allowed to die in these small, neglected communities the world over.
While ‘The Community of Hope’ is musically light with its acoustic guitar and drums, ‘The Ministry of Defence’ has a harsh contrast through its heavy guitar riff opening. This diverse difference in sound sets the tone for the rest of the album as Harvey delivers what is a very textured, varied sound unlike any other you could expect from an artist today. It isn’t completely dissimilar to Let England Shake through its use of sax on songs such as ‘Chain of Keys’.
Harvey deals with subjects that are both heavy handed and diverse. ‘A Line in the Sand’ for instance is perhaps one of the most haunting songs of the album, conveying scenes of horror through vocals that display her range and musical talent. However, Harvey makes a transition into first person, placing herself into the music. Describing how “I saw a displaced family eating a cold horse’s hoof” and how “I saw people kill each other” just to get to an air drop of food supplies first. While these are undoubtedly horrifying ways to see mankind, the song is troublesome because the focus is placed on Harvey – the shock that these images hold for an outsider are then confessional, rather than simply reported and conveyed.
There is an understandable compassion in her lyrics that questions why the world is like this and how it needs to change – this is ultimately the point of the album. As Harvey sings how “We got things wrong, but I believe we also did some good” a certain sense of naivety comes across. She isn’t making any earth shattering observations about change – we’re all aware change is needed, it’s constant, but it isn’t easily achieved.
What Harvey laments in The Hope Six Demolition Project is just the tip of the iceberg – it serves as a political reminder of the sheer extent to which the world is troubled. Deprivation and conflict are by no means limited to the areas that she highlights and this is something that feels starkly evident throughout the album. Harvey sets out to make political turmoil compelling and to stir emotive impact for the listener. What ultimately drives the record is the conviction for change in the world. Harvey paints the picture then leaves it up to the listener to take it from there.