Wilfully, earnestly, and with great conviction, Polly Jean Harvey continues to follow her own star. However much she is placed on a pedestal, the veteran English singer-songwriter remains the real thing: a musician of major talent, capable of striking originality, and sincerely concerned with using music to make important statements, both personal and political. Her newest work, The Hope Six Demolition Project, is explicitly and uniformly political, and in an age when most rock musicians have abandoned the attempt to offer serious social commentary, that alone makes it stand out. All the more disappointing, then, that the album turns out to be an awkward affair. It has its strengths, but this one will not be taking its place among the major successes of PJ Harvey’s career.
For several years past, Harvey has toured with filmmaker Seamus Murphy in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the deprived districts of Washington, D.C.; their project has spawned both a book of poetry and photography and a forthcoming documentary, in addition to the album itself. The whole thing is an attempt to grapple with poverty, mass destruction, and the ruinous after-effects of war. Inevitably, this has invited comparison with Harvey’s last album, 2011’s excellent Let England Shake, which reflected on English identity through the prism of 20th-century atrocity and, especially, the First World War. Yet the comparison is misleading, for Let England Shake is, for all its references to trenches and barbed wire, a personal album about Harvey’s own relationship to her country. The Hope Six Demolition Project turns the focus firmly outwards; it is a collection of scenes and character sketches – refugee camps, homeless alcoholics, a begging child – that are presumably drawn from Harvey’s direct observation, but are presented to the listener wholly as subjects in their own right.
Instrumentally, this record has kick. The frail, folky soundscapes of her last few albums are banished; in their place is a set of muscular, blues-based rock music that harks back to her ’90s work. Harvey is back to singing in her normal vocal register (as opposed to the eerie falsetto that she has deployed in so much of her recent music), and she supports it by making liberal use of the male backing vocals that help to give the album its particular Nick Cave-like, pseudo-operatic sense of melodrama. The sonic touchstone here is Harvey’s 1995 landmark To Bring You My Love, which also dealt principally in stylised, guitar-heavy, theatrical rock. Whether this aesthetic really suits the subject matter is doubtful; long-time fans are likely to reflect that a more fitting style to revive would have been the raw, unholy, punkish screech of her very early feminist shock-art. In the face of dispossessed, starving families tearing each other to pieces over scraps of food, Hope Six’s grandiose stomp feels a little hollow. Halfway into the album, you’re yearning for it to sound uglier.
That might not feel like such a shortcoming if the album weren’t so lyrically uninspired. But sadly, despite obviously straining to create some kind of impassioned howl of anguish at the state of the world, Harvey seems unable to articulate much more than rote observations and trite expressions of helplessness. Some of her attempts at profundity are outright cringeworthy; the tediously inflated “Medicinals” begins by remarking on how Native Americans once grew herbs for medicine on the land that is now Washington, D.C., then shifts to describing one of their present-day descendants drinking alcohol on the street from a paper bag: “a new painkiller for the native people”. This is simplistic, sophomoric, and probably insulting to most Native Americans. Most of the time, Harvey doesn’t screw up quite that badly; instead she is simply bland. She rarely manages to say anything surprising, and so if her intention was to shake people up a bit, she has almost certainly failed.
There are a few redeeming moments, and they tend to come when the more understated, evasive lyrical turns are married to the faster, more energised, less stodgy-sounding melodies. Nowhere is this clearer than on the single “The Wheel,” which appeared several months ago and now stands out by a mile as the only unqualified great song on this album. Guitars and horns combine in a raucous, sinewy attack, the tune racing bracingly round and round in a dizzying circle, as Harvey sings of children in a Kosovo playground, and sets them against the urgent, still-living history of all those other Kosovo children, not even twenty years ago, who vanished in the turmoil of war. The song is visceral and packed with adrenaline, but simultaneously bleak and haunting, genuinely raising the hairs on the back of your neck. In this, and in its few other most powerful moments, The Hope Six Demolition Project feels exciting and potent. As a whole, however, it casts too broad a net, attempts to say too much, and ends up sounding self-important and vague. PJ Harvey is one of our best, but this time around, she hasn’t hit the mark.