Who wouldn’t like to be called a ‘controversial’ musician? That’s the tag PJ Harvey’s getting now that she received a backlash from her second single from The Hope Six Demolition Project, ‘The Community Of Hope’. To sum up, a bunch of people who disagreed with PJ Harvey’s portrait of Ward 7 in Washington D.C. Even without the lyrics, it’s one of the most immediate and buoyant songs Harvey has released in years. Harvey’s latest album is the logical extension of Let England Shake, solidifying Harvey’s place as a war commentator, though this time on a global scale. Perhaps it’s the widening of Harvey’s vision and the ambition of the project, but it fails to live up to her last album. It tries desperately to convey its message, so much so that it often forgets to have a soul in between the serious condemnations of governments letting down the people. That part it does fine, and Harvey is quickly becoming the go-to artist for level-headed criticism of the figures of power. She can deliver a stark state-of-the-nation reminder of the everyday murder that we watch every day on ‘A Line In The Sand’, but it’s a cold statement that has no warmth behind it. Sure, it doesn’t have to have an optimistic side to a brutally plain negative, but Harvey trots it out and walks away without batting an eyelid.
The instrumentation will be familiar to anyone who experienced Let England Shake, however Harvey allows some of her early blues-rock side to seep into the edges. It comes across as a combination between Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (Which was also Harvey’s ‘American’ album) and Let England Shake‘s embracing of the traditional orchestration. On ‘Chain Of Keys’ it combines a To Bring You My Love blues guitar with a deep saxophone, which reappears many times throughout The Hope Six…, and Harvey’s experimentation with sound never goes wrong, showing her ability to craft new sounds with what she’s previously learned. That’s what made her piano-ballad album White Chalk so engrossing and that’s what raises The Hope Six… into a project that can still excite instrumentally even if Harvey’s lyrics and vocals can disappoint. Sometimes Harvey’s scope can be bewildering and vast and that makes it hard to connect with the storyteller at the centre of it all. Harvey travels between Washington D.C., Kosovo and Afghanistan and her observations are thought-provoking, but nothing of Harvey’s personality comes through in her clear-cut inspection. If she’s not there, you might as well read a history book.
But that’s not entirely true for all of the songs. On ‘Dollar Dollar’, Harvey brings the interaction between a beggar boy and herself into the wider context of the album. She questions whether herself commentating on war and poverty; writing songs about it; does any good. And even she herself, as someone who is writing songs about those who are affected, cannot find any words to respond to the boy through the window of her car. She sings ‘All My Words Get Swallowed’, which could easily be a double meaning – As literally she cannot find the words to respond, but it’s a question as to whether anything she says has any meaning and impact on anything that actually happens. Is it just a drop in the ocean? This is where The Hope Six Demolition Project gets interesting, but unfortunately this song is not a representation of the album as a whole.
There are moments of greatness and reflection on this album, but there is also po-faced bleakness and statistic-stating that doesn’t evoke any sympathetic or angry emotions. Despite this, there is also some gems hidden in here, like ‘The Community Of Hope’, which is a great guitar-pop song with a definitive message and is now ‘controversial’, so you just kind of have to love it. Likewise, ‘The Orange Monkey’ is an example of how instrumentally tight PJ Harvey is these days, with her traditional and modern arrangements plus a trusty band of male backing vocalists. If this album had more of ‘Dollar Dollar’ in it, it might have been a success, but it’s disappointingly soulless even with the souls that her travels have provided. Harvey is perfect when it comes to articulating large concepts, but where is the personal?
Funeral Recommends: The Community Of Hope / The Orange Monkey / Dollar Dollar