PJ Harvey

The Hope Six Demolition Project

BY Cosette SchulzPublished Apr 13, 2016

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. It was a decision that evokes the themes of this record: Harvey herself became a spectacle to scrutinize, just as Hope Six evokes the idea of observation from an outsider perspective, describing events but not having any impact upon them.
Compositionally, Hope Six is gorgeous, and features some of Harvey's best melodies yet. Perhaps because she worked with the same producers, it shares a sonic atmosphere with 2011's Let England Shake, making it sound something like a sister album to that release. Her voice, characteristically haunting and piercing, is pronounced and shining here, exuding strength on "Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln," wavering in delicate falsetto on "A Line in the Sand," snarling commandingly on "Medicinals" and whispering eerily on "River Anacostia." Harvey's vocals are at the forefront of every track here, fattened up with reverb and layered backing vocals, reinforcing the notion of community, empathy and inclusiveness that Harvey seems to wish was more constant in this world.
The jangly blues stomp and saxophone skronk of "The Ministry of Social Affairs" skewers neo-Capitalism by flipping Barrett Strong's "Money, That's What I Want," while the heavy-hitting "The Ministry of Defence" has a military feel to it, thanks to rolling snares and chants that also complement the call-and-response, repetitive vocals of "Chain of Keys." "Medicinals" personifies the witch hazel and sumac that once grew where concrete now lies, as Harvey considers nature's power and omnipresence.
That said, there's a pervasive, troubling sense on this record that we're often getting mere descriptions of the horrors Harvey saw on her various travels, rather than challenges or emotional reaction. She sings that "They've sprayed graffiti in Arabic, and balanced sticks in human shit" on "The Ministry of Defence," tells of a boy begging for money on "Dollar, Dollar" and asks on "Medicinals," "Do you see that woman sitting in the wheelchair? With her Redskins cap on backwards…from inside a paper wrapper she sips from a bottle, a new painkiller for the native people."
It raises the question often posed of journalism: At what point does one step in and intervene, rather than simply observing and reporting? Harvey addresses this, if subtly, on "The Orange Monkey" — "I took a plane to a foreign land, and said 'I'll write down what I find" — and on "A Line in the Sand," when she sings that, "What I've seen, yes, it's changed how I see human kind."
Throughout, The Hope Six Demolition Project is observational yet impartial, wanting to help yet feeling helpless. It's just art, and Harvey seems to know that, so though this majestic album confronts the harsh realities and truths of the world in a medium most can grasp, she seems to wonder, as I imagine we all do, what can be done besides penning a poem or singing a song.
In this way, The Hope Six Demolition Project implicates all of the Western world's complacency, making for a complex and challenging, though gorgeous, listen.
(Island Records)

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