The Hope Six Demolition Project
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The Hope Six Demolition Project draws from several journeys undertaken by Harvey, who spent time in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. over a four-year period. When I'm writing a song I visualise the entire scene. I can see the colours, I can tell the time of day, I can sense the mood, I can see the light changing, the shadows moving, everything in that picture. Gathering information from secondary sources felt too far removed for what I was trying to write about. I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with , says Harvey.
The album was recorded last year in residency at London s Somerset House. The exhibition, entitled Recording in Progress saw Harvey, her band, producers Flood and John Parish, and engineers working within a purpose-built recording studio behind one-way glass, observed throughout by public audiences.
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But neither her detractors or defenders were really prepared to deal with the literary sophistication of her art. There's a Washington Post story you can look up online written by the (semi-clueless) WaPo reporter who drove Harvey around what he considered the mean streets. The song is basically the reporter's view of his city. Elsewhere, in an article... er, I mean song, about Afghanistan, are the lines "I used to think progress was being made, that we could get something right," and "I make no excuse, we got things wrong, but I believe we also did some good." Slightly awkward poetry? Again, these are quotes most likely from a military or international aid official, not necessarily Polly Jean Harvey's judgment on America's cities or its wars. In both cases, they're outsiders viewing devastation they don't quite understand, privileged and empowered yet paralyzed and unable to help. Harvey seems to show herself in the same light in the final track.
I've bought every PJ Harvey album soon after its release since the first, and with each--with perhaps the exception of Uh Huh Her--she has deepened her songwriting and lyric writing while making quantum leaps in terms of tonal palette. Her last one, "Let England Shake," was almost disorienting in its power on the first few listens. Stepping away from her home shores, the America-centric "Hope Six Demolition Project" is more back to basics, echoing the crash and thrash of her earliest two albums, but retaining some of the gloss and spookiness of later records. Her singing is mainly back in the lower, more natural register that prevailed on "Stories from the City..." The current album keeps the almost journalistic approach of "Let England Shake," albeit more stream of consciousness and impressionistic. It is a deep dive into the psychic and physical destruction, both at home and abroad, our culture has helped bring about, though it's not partisan or finger pointing or romanticizing of "noble savages" in any way. Good intentions don't always pan out. (Nor do all the songs--"Medicinals" is moderately engaging as a song but to my ear indulges in a lazy, particularly English kind of anti-Americanism that detracts from the album, while "Ministry of Social Affairs" is just sort of boring and inessential... just before the final two tracks come roaring back.) Having spent time in each of the places--Kosovo, Afghanistan, DC--she focuses on, her viewpoint is strong, grounded and valid. And more importantly, this is a great album.
If you're new to PJ, this might not be the first album to pick up. But the beauty of a musician (or any great creative force) like her is that it's another chapter in a variety of work that's always original. Picasso wasn't just a Cubist. Calder didn't Just make mobiles. Prince wasn't always about make-out music.
On repeated listening, some songs are revealed to be more musically powerful, lyrics aside. I find "A Line In the Sand" and "Medicinals" to be the two strongest songs. The lyrics to "A Line in the Sand," quoting a defender of failed U.S. military intervention, are the best on the album. "The Ministry of Defence," "River Anacostia," The Orange Monkey," "The Ministry of Social Affairs," and "The Wheel" are quite good as well.
The lead track, and title track, "The Community of Hope," is upbeat and catchy with incredibly sarcastic and depressing lyrics about life in the projects which are to be demolished and replaced by a Wal-Mart. I find it quite amazing that anyone failed to catch the sarcasm here, but then someone invariably does. I don't think it works very well, though, even if you know what PJ is trying to accomplish. I realize she is quoting someone, a journalist who was her guide through the poorest section of Washington D.C., but this is a case where my impression is that she could really benefit from some study of Bertolt Brecht. She seems to be aiming for the same effect -- biting social critique -- but her aim could be better.
The chorus of "The Wheel" has the same problem -- what was twenty-eight thousand? We shouldn't have to guess. The last song, "Dollar, Dollar," is not much to begin with, but ends quite powerfully with mournful saxophone. "Chain of Keys" and "Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln" are unsuccessful, in my opinion. The chorus of the latter, another ostensibly upbeat number, is repeated over and over, but fails to convey any significant meaning.
One thing some reviewers have said which is not true is that this is in some way a return to the sound of her early albums. Definitely not. There are a few more up-tempo pop songs than on "Let England Shake," all of which are deceptive given their lyrical content, but this is not first-person music about sex and relationships, and neither is there a return to that bluesy rock sound.
The 12-page booklet includes all the lyrics.
I liked PJ Harvey's music when it had energy. I'm not that interested in what she has to say - unless she feels like saying it with energy. This latest release seems like a poem - written by someone who is not primarily a poet. I can read a newspaper if I'm interested in opinions. What happened to making music that kicks ass? I don't like it.