Release Date: Apr 15, 2016
Record label: Vagrant
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
From her feminist post-punk beginnings, namechecking goddesses with enlarged genitals, to singing falsetto over gothic piano pieces while dressed like a Victorian doll, Polly Jean Harvey has always gone her own way. Nearly 20 years of musical non-conformity and reinvention reached their apex in 2011 with Let England Shake. An innovative, unflinching examination of war, influenced by TS Eliot’s poetry and underpinned by folk tradition, it bagged Harvey her second Mercury Prize (the first was for 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea) – a feat never accomplished before or since.
Although on Let England Shake PJ Harvey closely referenced World War I, it was equally a deeper meditation on the terrible vagaries of war in a wider sense. It was an extraordinary moment in an already remarkable career in which she refracted a historical reference point through her own musical lens for a larger purpose. It was a majestic marriage of an important and consistent thematic thread with her most daring musical experiments, and she delivered a work of staggering beauty.
Putting together The Hope Six Demolition Project must have been quite the ordeal: it involved inspiration from trips to Kosovo, Washington, D. C. and Afghanistan with photographer Seamus Murphy, and was recorded publicly as an art installation aptly titled Recording in Progress, where audiences were invited to witness the birth of Hope Six at London's Somerset House and gaze at the band through one-way mirrors as they played, performed and recorded.
There's a beautiful, full-circle moment that brings The Hope Six Demolition Project to a close. Forlorn horns and ghostly organs eventually give way to the sound of children playing in the background, forcing a moment or two of filterless human connection. Listener on subject. PJ Harvey has said her piece.
The Hope Six Demolition Project is an album with quite a story attached. Preparations for the follow-up to 2011’s Mercury prize-winning Let England Shake involved Polly Harvey travelling to Afghanistan, Kosovo and the grimmer parts of Washington DC in the company of film-maker and photographer Seamus Murphy, the better to record the effects of war and poverty. The field trips have thus far spawned a book of poetry and photographs called The Hollow of the Hand, and an open recording session-cum-art installation, during which the public were invited to stand behind a one-way glass and watch Harvey and her band making the album in a specially constructed studio in London’s Somerset House.
In 1992, an NME writer asked PJ Harvey about the political resonance of her work. "I feel uncomfortable with myself at the moment because I feel I’m neglecting that side," she replied. "I’m not concerned enough about things." She worried that the critical attention she had received for her debut album, that year’s Dry, was making her introspective.
The phrase ‘musical reinvention’ gets bandied about pretty much every time a reasonably well-established recording artist finds out what a drum machine is. But perhaps the surest sign of the fact that PJ Harvey really has reinvented herself is that it’s taken about a decade to actually be totally certain. Polly Jean Harvey’s elegiac 2011 masterpiece Let England Shake wasn’t her first record to deviate from the sound she made her name with.
What is it that makes PJ Harvey so intoxicating? The Hope Six Demolition Project finds me asking myself this quite a bit because it's not one of her works I can say I'm into because of its musical inclination. Yet I find myself listening just for the sociopolitical commentary as opposed to the melodic novel at hand. Her statements are more missives than verses and choruses.
On 2011's Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake, PJ Harvey connected World War I bloodbaths with the 21st century world in harrowing, moving ways. Its follow-up, The Hope Six Demolition Project, feels like a companion piece with a wider focus and more urgent mood. For this project -- which also includes the 2015 book of poetry The Hollow of the Hand and a film -- Harvey and her Shake collaborator, war photographer Seamus Murphy, emphasized documentation: The pair spent years researching in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C.; later, Harvey was literally transparent about the recording process, making Hope Six at a recording studio behind one-way glass for public audiences at London’s Somerset House.
The year is 2013. You’re excited because Brad Paisley’s about to release the snickeringly titled Wheelhouse, in which the genial, widely respected country singer really challenges his red-state fans. His 2009 single “Welcome to the Future” adopted synths and pro-Obama rhetoric, making note that America had come so far since the KKK’s cross-burning heyday.
If PJ Harvey’s intention for her new album was to get people talking, then The Hope Six Demolition Project is an unqualified success. That’s what happens when a famous rock star travels the world, observing war-torn, poverty-stricken, tragic, and otherwise profoundly different places and using those observations for a seemingly political album. Leading up to her first truly “political” record, 2011’s Let England Shake, Harvey hesitated to approach large issues outside her own experience.
PJ Harvey's ninth solo album is a set of folk and blues op-ed journalism – following an activist impulse for this usually inward-looking artist that began on her last album, 2011's Let England Shake. "Now you see them, now you don't/Faces, limbs, a bouncing skull," she sings against rushing acoustic guitars, braying sax and circular hand claps on "The Wheel," a survey of the cyclical nature of war. Harvey traveled to Afghanistan and Kosovo, and spent time in Washington, D.C., witnessing the many costs of imperialist aggression.
PJ Harvey caught some heat for “The Community of Hope”, the first track off her ninth album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. In it, she hardly flatters a poor neighborhood in Washington D.C.—Anacostia, which comes up again in another song on the record—when she describes addicts on the street as “zombies” and the local school as a “shit hole”. She makes a point of show there’s just one “sit-down restaurant”, and the song ends with a towering refrain: “They’re gonna build a Walmart here.” The criticisms Harvey faced over the song may have somewhat missed the point.
The 2015 winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Belarus-based writer Svetlana Alexievich interviews ordinary people about their experiences, unveiling the harrowing human underbelly to recent Russian history: the Soviet war in Afghanistan; the Chernobyl disaster. The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey’s latest album, is best understood as a kindred sort of reportage, one delivered via guitar, saxophone and gospel choir. That’s not to say it hasn’t got some tunes.
PJ Harvey’s last album, the Mercury Prize-winning ‘Let England Shake’, was rooted in one country. Wartime atrocities shared the spotlight with Dover’s white cliffs, in a vulnerable portrait of a confused Kingdom. With ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, Harvey’s leaving Old Blighty for pastures new, but that hasn’t stopped her music from being rooted in location.
For the most part, though, Harvey’s difficult dance avoids the trap of exploitation. The only song that feels uncomfortable in that sense is ‘Chain of Keys’, which recounts Harvey’s encounter with an old Kosovan woman who keeps the keys of her neighbour’s abandoned houses on a chain. “Imagine what her eyes have seen / We ask but she won’t let us in” sings Harvey; it’s unclear whether the woman won’t let them into her house or her memories, but you can’t help but wonder if she didn’t just want them to go away.
"I will not dignify this inane composition with a response" was Washington, D.C.'s former mayor Vincent Gray's (wholly disingenuous) response to The Community of Hope, the lead track from The Hope Six Demolition Project. The song, a social commentary inspired by the Ward 7 area that sits at the eastern tip of the city, drew criticism from commentators for its perceived unfair and unhelpful portrayal of an area struggling with economic downturn, social upheaval and a host of recent failed redevelopment projects. "Here's the Hope Six Demolition Project, stretching down to Benning Road," sings Harvey, "a well-known pathway of death (at least that's what I'm told.)" Gray would no doubt counsel Harvey to check her sources before publication.
Polly Jean Harvey's early albums had an autobiographical feel, the sound of a young woman slamming down doors to take on patriarchy, stake out her personal take on feminism, and express a raging disapproval of how a young woman is expected to act, think and feel. Lately, her albums have expanded outward into storytelling, history, the personal as political. Her previous album, "Let England Shake," explored the psychic carnage that World War I imprinted on her homeland.
FEW ARTISTS can hope to surpass or, at the very least, match PJ Harvey’s tremendous quarter-century hot streak. Since her brilliant 1992 debut Dry, Harvey has released a string of follow-up albums of varying degrees of excellence. Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea regularly, and rightly, appear on Best Of lists (you name their topic and temporal scope).
Polly Jean Harvey established herself as a radical artist with her debut album, “Dry,” an unflinching look at femininity that asserted its singular vision with a dissonant opening chord. Since then, she’s been one of rock’s most prolific creators, establishing a discography that’s aesthetically adventurous while being uniquely hers. With 2011’s “Let England Shake,” she shifted her focus from the interior to the exterior, taking on the decline of her home country and the dreary atmosphere promised by constant war.
PJ Harvey's ninth album begins and ends inside a car, with the British rocker staring out the window, observing what's happening on the street. The pace is brisk on opener The Community Of Hope as she whizzes through a poor Washington, DC, neighbourhood slated for redevelopment, past the one sit-down restaurant, a "shit-hole" of a school and the site of a future Walmart. It's a deceptively upbeat song that sets up The Hope Six Demolition Project's main musical dichotomy of bleak observations paired with shuffling drumbeats and jaunty riffs.
The real problem that social media’s caused rock music is that it’s stripped bands of that old-fashioned sense of enigma. Averse as I am to faux-nostalgia, once upon a time a band would finish a tour cycle and that’d be that; until the next record was finished, you’d wouldn’t hear from them. What social media should do is provide the opportunity for bands to tease their fanbase - “what’s he building in there?” Blow-by-blow updates, if we’re honest, rather spoil the magic.
Accruing inspiration for her ninth LP, PJ Harvey scoured Washington, D.C.'s crime-ridden wards. The upshot, a titular reference to the public housing blueprint by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, takes the political POV of 2011's Let England Shake global. "The Community of Hope" feigns optimism, but yields sarcasm. "They're gonna put a Walmart here," fears the Dorset native, part whistleblower, part empathetic storyteller.
The best promo for PJ Harvey’s ninth studio album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, came about entirely by accident. An unsuspecting Washington Post reporter published an account of the day he took a mysterious, dark-haired “musician/poet” on a tour of Washington, D. C.