Album Review: PJ Harvey—“The Hope Six Demolition Project”

By Carey Roach

Five years ago, it seemed that PJ Harvey had survived the sometimes-difficult transition from fiery rock songstress to thoughtful and mature singer-songwriter. 2011’s largely successful Let England Shake seemed to solidify Harvey’s newfound identity as a bold and creative politically-charged voice. But her most recent release, The Hope Six Demolition Project, casts doubts on this status.

The Hope Six Demolition Project chronicles Harvey’s recent travels throughout Washington, D.C., Kosovo and Afghanistan alongside photographer Seamus Murphy. In true PJ form, the album is brimming with creativity; it was recorded in public as an art installation, and is accompanied by photographs, poetry and an ensuing documentary. But despite the obvious effort put into the record, it is sadly disappointing. Although spectacular in some aspects, Hope Six largely pales in comparison to Let England Shake, the record it was intended to be a sister to.

With Hope Six, Harvey hoped to create a first-hand account of the conflict-ridden places she was fascinated with. But instead, she paints a disassociated portrait of supposedly “exotic” lands that veers dangerously close to exploitative and Orientalist territory. She sings plainly about the landscapes and people she saw, clearly hoping to cause impact, but the lyrics just come across as shallow. Essentially, the record is just a wealthy white British woman singing for forty minutes about how terrible the poor places she visited are, a message that does not sit particularly well.


Album art for The Hope Six Demolition Project

The record is incredibly limited by its lack of self-awareness. It doesn’t seem like Harvey ever took a step back to question whether she was the most appropriate voice to share these stories. She passes judgement on these places without trying to truly understand the realities behind them. This is most obvious with “The Community of Hope”. Harvey describes her travels through Ward 7, an underprivileged Washington D.C. neighbourhood that the government is currently trying to revitalize. She declares that “this is just drug town” and thinks that “the school just looks like a shit hole.” Understandably, residents of the neighbourhood and local politicians were very upset at how she portrayed their home, wishing that Harvey had taken the time to actually get to know their city.

Even her best songs are restricted by this approach. “Dollar, Dollar”, a beautiful song with a roaring saxophone solo, is ruined by the completely unnecessary addition of a minute-long intro of traffic noise that is obviously supposed to remind the listener of a chaotic foreign country.

And this is a shame, given that the musical aspects of Hope Six are phenomenal. Harvey sounds great, and her voice is much stronger and more powerful than it was on Let England Shake. Instrumentally, the album is incredible, a fiery mix of saxophones, guitar and catchy melodies. Songs like “Medicinals” and “The Ministry of Social Affairs” are some of Harvey’s best work yet musically, as the record delves into more experimental territory sonically than Harvey ever has before. But ultimately, the instrumentals are overshadowed by the problematic lyrical content.

The backlash towards Hope Six is related to a more significant dilemma; exactly whose stories are artists permitted to share? The problem is not necessarily that PJ Harvey is telling other people’s stories, it is that she is doing so in a shallow, irresponsible and wholly inaccurate way. The places she sings about on Hope Six are more than just their unsightly exteriors, which is something that Harvey fails to realize throughout the record. Harvey clearly brings passion and creativity to this project, but the lack of thoughtfulness and responsibility is what causes things to go wrong.

It is hard to come to a definitive conclusion about The Hope Six Demolition Project, and perhaps that was the point. Although undeniably flawed, Hope Six still invokes a powerful reaction and forces the listener to think and reflect, which in itself is an accomplishment that should not be undermined. (Island)


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