PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project

PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project Album review by Rhian Daly | Rating: ★★★☆☆

15/04/2016

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In 2011, PJ Harvey painted vivid pictures of war with Let England Shake. Concerned with the effects of conflict after World War I as well as more recent combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, it put its listeners deep into the battlefield and the debris-ridden aftermath. That record won Harvey the Mercury Music Prize in the same year, deservedly, making her the most successful artist in the competition with two wins and four nominations.

The Hope Six Demolition Project continues where that album left off, further dissecting politics and the effects of conflict and power. The record may have been recorded in front of a live audience back at London's Somerset House, but it takes its name from the Hope VI project in America, whereby destitute public housing was destroyed and replaced with modern, better-quality blocks. The project has been much-criticised for not providing enough housing for the poorest communities who lived in the previous residences.

Harvey's focus isn't purely on the States, though. On The Orange Monkey, Harvey sings, "I took a plane to a foreign land/And said 'I'll write down what I find'. This time around, doing just that, she travelled to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC over four years, plumbing her experiences to inform a new set of songs.

Some of the songs are more subtle than others. Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln – a stuttering march with an eerie flute melody – has Harvey recreating a picture of tourist bustle, people "lumbering over the grass/To squeeze into plastic chairs" around two of DC's biggest historic attractions. Later, she observes how "a black man in overalls/Arrives to empty the trash/Hauls it to a metal hatch". It's innocent enough on the surface, but there's an importance in her identifying the worker's race – a soft nudge to make you think about privilege.

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The mournful shuffle of A Line In The Sand makes its imagery more explicit. In its opening line Harvey asks, "How to stop the murdering? By now we should have learned," while later she recalls seeing "a displaced family eating a cold horse's hoof" and "people kill each other just to get [to aid] first". The Ministry Of Defence details the aftermath of a strike ("Stairs and walls are all that left/Mortar holes let through the air") on an old MOD building, now covered in Arabic graffiti. It ends on a foreboding note after building up a barren landscape strewn with "fizzy drinks cans" and "broken glass": "This is how the world will end". 

Like Let England Shake, The Hope Six Demolition Project is rarely demanding. It doesn't force itself or any particular message on you, targeting your sub-conscious more than anything. A large number of the songs are upbeat and catchy, like when Harvey sings, "They're gonna put a Walmart here" in nursery rhyme melody on The Community Of Hope. It feels like a concerted tactic to subtly and slowly get her points across – burrow into people's psyches via earworm tunes rather than by earnest preaching.

Dollar Dollar is the biggest attempt to veer away from that approach. It's the rawest, most emotionally connected track on the record, a sombre piece that begins with sounds from a street and men and children crying out. Musically, it's sparse – just some variophon and mellotron floating in, letting Harvey's rich voice lead with no distractions. She sings of a boy staring through a car window "saying dollar, dollar" and the guilt of either not helping or being able to help. "In the mirror glass/A face pock-marked and hollow," goes the final verse. "I can't look through or past/The face saying dollar, dollar".

It's one of the simplest songs on the album, but also one of the most harrowing because of the feeling in Harvey's voice and the music, and the striking imagery of the lyrics. There's a sense you're finally getting something, only for the song's end to mark that of the album too. While The Hope Six Demolition Project is another admirable attempt from Harvey to switch the world on to the destruction and devastation we're causing, it feels lacking and clunky and less refined than its predecessor.

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