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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

PJ Harvey’s ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ is muddled but mindful

(Plastic Jesus/Flickr)
(Plastic Jesus/Flickr)

The lyrics, “I took a plane to a foreign land and said, ‘I’ll write down what I find,’” from PJ Harvey’s new album, “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” also serves as the record’s mission statement. The album, inspired by visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C., was recorded in public and, despite very little PR, feels like one of Harvey’s most open records. It’s one that makes little attempt at lyrical metaphor or secrecy.

Carrying on the political ideology of the magnificent 2011 record, “Let England Shake,” Harvey shines a light on social and political grievances while evoking imagery of free versus oppressed countries. There’s little room for debate in the lyrics, and Harvey’s new focus creates a musical and political tension between Harvey, the music and her public.

This tension is apparent in opener “The Community of Hope,” which has already received controversy for what Washington politicians believe is an inaccurate portrayal of the city’s Ward 7. Both the song and the record’s title reference the United States’ controversial HOPE VI initiative, which seeks to resolve the problems in low-income housing areas through demolition and reconstruction that may not be affordable for the original residents.

The song is catchy, but its lyrics, drawn from a single guided tour, feel like a dilettante’s ramblings. Gentrification and the upheaval of whole communities is no laughing matter, but in “The Community of Hope,” the concepts are summarized with a few noncommittal repetitions of, “They’re gonna build a Wal-Mart here.”

Unfortunately, this is a pervasive problem in “Hope Six.” While the underlying concept is fascinating, it’s often unclear exactly what point Harvey is trying to make, frequently causing her political assertions to come off as ham-fisted and not worth looking into. The anthem-like quality and gritty recording of “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln,” almost make it sound like a lost number from the 1960s protest musical “Hair,” and has lyrics that don’t evoke much of anything other than pedestrian interactions around the monuments.

The final lines of “The Orange Monkey” seem to suggest industrialization as a hindrance to Harvey’s globe-hopping initiative, but expound very little on the idea. It may be unfair to expect vivid description in the limited space of song lyrics, but the clear concept of “Hope Six” held against these shortcomings leaves much to be desired.

This is especially disconcerting in the context of the record’s more meditated-on songs. “River Anacostia” is a lumbering tribute to the polluted Washington D.C.-Maryland river, which Harvey bookends with lines from Underground Railroad spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Anacostia was only peripherally part of the railroad, but the reminder that “God’s gonna trouble (heal) the water” carries a stronger sense of optimism and historical awareness than “The Community of Hope” conjured.

Elsewhere, the aimless people-watching of “Near the Memorials” gets entirely overshadowed by the clamor of “The Wheel,” where Harvey constructs a grander metaphor of gun violence from watching Kosovan children fly in and out of view on a swing carousel. “Hey little children don’t disappear, all that’s left after a year,” she cries as her band repeats, “I heard it was 28,000,” (an oft-cited statistic referring to the number of gun-related deaths in America).

There’s also plenty to extrapolate in “Chain of Keys,” whose weary lurch and desolate imagery recall post-war Eastern Europe’s deserted cities and those left behind. Although Harvey’s once-again observational stance makes it difficult to conclude the song’s message, its honest portrayal and less pandering delivery allow the listener to more easily follow along.

“Hope Six” has two recent cousins in David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Natasha Khan’s “Sexwitch” project. The former’s grimy horn-blaring palette helps Harvey maintain cohesion while shifting moods and locations. The latter’s trance-like recording and third-world co-opting can sometimes problematically reflect on the hypocrisy of post-colonial moral obligation.

Often, it’s the musical ideas of these records that carry “Hope Six” through its lyrical blemishes. “The Ministry of Defense” is set to a trudging tempo intercut with driving guitar chords and a saxophone-driven, dungeon-esque bridge, while “The Ministry of Social Affairs” takes an interesting foray into blues sampling.

“A Line in the Sand” sees Harvey climbing into the eerily high register that dominated her last two records, invoking the haunting feeling that made “Let England Shake” cuts like “On Battleship Hill” so stirring. Here, the composition and storytelling are enough to keep the listener singing along, even when the statements underneath come off as muddled.

Retelling an experience is difficult, and so is attaching a weighty message to it. “Hope Six” often succeeds much more at one than the other, causing it to sometimes come off as clumsy and directionless. But these are small missteps, and while “Let England Shake” will undoubtedly remain Harvey’s late-career highlight, “Hope Six” is still a sizable reminder that she has a great deal of song left in her. All she needs is greater clarity of her message to couple it with.

William Doolittle can be reached [email protected].

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