Track-By-Track review of The Hope Six Demolition Project by PJ Harvey
Documentary new album is inspired by three years of travel
Five years on from Let England Shake and now a Member of the British Empire, Polly Jean Harvey takes that record’s travelogue focus on the character and landscape of her home country and applies it on an international scale. Inspired by three years’ worth of travels in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC with photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy, The Hope Six Demolition Project is a record of almost documentary intensity – at many points it’s possible to imagine her almost singing aloud from her notebook – and a nagging lack of insight at key points. She’s only brought us here, of course, and it’s up to us to do the research and fill in the backstory to the scenes she creates; but we feel like tourists, and we feel like she’s a tourist too. Away from any deeper expectations, however, the musical quality is relentless.
The Community of Hope
Before the album has even been released, this was the song which started a minor international incident. Inspired by a tour of Washington DC’s grimiest projects with Washington Post reporter Paul Schwarzman, it talks of shithole schools and Homeland Security bases in old mental institutions, a poverty porn travelogue which has attracted the ire of some Washington politicians. Yet the upbeat guitar jangle is hopeful, joyous even, despite a seeming lyrical acceptance of mundanity which accepts that ‘they’re gonna put a Walmart here’ at its coda. Before digging deep into the lyrics and the accusations of social cleansing levelled at the Hope VI projects, the title gives a resonance of Assemble’s Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool; whether intentional or not, there’s a tension here between the pressure of urban decay and the resistance of those determined to do something about it which perhaps the lyric could have balanced more readily. Perhaps that’s in this listener’s ear alone, but the lyric is almost satirically gloomy and the music is quite cheering.
The Ministry of Defence
Playing off Harvey’s tender vocal against a charging, serrated guitar riff which pummels its way through the song, she takes us through eyewitness reports of the bombed-out title building, only walls, stairs, Arabic graffiti and syringes left. Not location specific, it’s on-the-nose and menacingly wonderful for it, a vision of totalitarian order versus unchecked chaos as Harvey hollers ‘this is how the world will end’ over discordant, blaring saxophone parts. It’s one of this record’s most memorable sonic tableaus.
A Line in the Sand
‘I see humankind … I used to think progress was made, we could get something right,’ sings Harvey, angelic but tarnished. This is a strong take on the record’s main purpose as travelogue-meets-social-commentary, a report from an unidentified refugee camp where she apparently observes a family eating a cold horse’s hoof. ‘If we have not learned by now / then we’re a sham’; it’s simple but effective.
Chain of Keys
Murmuring saxophone heralds a funereal air, and the image of an old woman carrying a ring of keys refusing entry to Harvey and Murphy. To where, we aren’t certain, but the verse which states ‘the neighbours won’t be coming back … fifteen houses falling down’ hints that she’s in a ghost neighbourhood made barren by poverty or war.
Referencing a Washington DC river which flows ‘with the poisons / from the naval yard’ (and assorted sewage and litter issues, off-lyric), Harvey creates a shimmering ebb-and-flow which imagines Jesus performing a hollow miracle as He walks across the filthy surface of the water, ‘talking to the fallen trees / saying “what will become of us?”’. Setting a sliver of bitter hope in her vocal with a sonorous male funeral chant, it’s a very low-key vision of environmental apocalypse.
Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln
A rootsy, martial reading of the repeated title is offset by a swirling, disorientated verse which seems to make use of a (possibly Harvey herself, multi-tracked) choir. The lyric is unusually light for music so deep in apparent portent, as tourists come and sit on plastic chairs, a boy torments the birds with food and a black man cleans up after them.
The Orange Monkey
In which Harvey partly explains her mission on this record, albeit couched in mystical terms; about the possibly metaphorical monkey on her back which tells her she must visit foreign lands and record what she finds in order to really understand these places. Amidst a fluttering, birdsong-like loop of her cawing voice, she imagines dusty tracks and desert lands generations ago, worked by the people with peaceful vigour; and now there’s a motorway driven right through the land.
Harvey’s voice once more struts and hollers, this time alongside a low saxophone line which adds drive and urgency to her words. Another reflection on past and present, she notes the native plants which grow in the tourist-saturated and iconic gathering site of Washington’s National Mall, still here despite humanity rolling over their terrain. Yet a coda which juxtaposes these herbs with an aged woman in a Redskins cap and a wheelchair sucking on a more destructive ‘medicine’ from a bottle in a bag almost buckles the song under the weight of its own heavily-freighted meaning.
The Ministry of Social Affairs
Presumably referencing Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled, the song picks up the old blues groove it samples at the start and turns it into a strutting, shuddering observation of amputees and ‘young men with withered arms’ awaiting the dispensation of presumably benefit money. More than most of the songs here, it marries typically unerring musical potency with a real sense of place and eyewitness feeling.
An old-fashioned rocker with drive and lyrical intensity, this was the attention-grabbing first single from the album. The pictures it paints are sickening, telling rumours of those missing through murder or state disappearance – presumably in Afghanistan – via the heart-clutching medium of vanished children. ‘A tableau of the missing / tied to the government building,’ she hollers. ‘Eight thousand sun-bleached photographs / faded with the roses.’ Grim but firmly compelling.
There’s no question this is one of the record’s musical highlights, and in this it elevates a few verses of one single moment – a boy begging at a car window, lost in traffic as it moves on – into a perfect example of what Harvey is apparently trying to achieve. Her voice keens regretfully and is lost amidst saxophone and street sounds; we’re there, not just in the place she was, but in the emotion she felt. More of this sense of connection may have been welcome, but even with an occasional air of detachment, this has been a journey well worth taking.
The Hope Six Demolition Project by PJ Harvey is out now on Island.