5 June 2016

PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project

PJ Harvey has become a bit of an institution for the UK music press if we are honest, since bursting onto the scene in 1992 with 'Dry' and acclaimed follow up 'Rid of Me'.  She has won the Mercury Music Prize twice (for the albums 'Stories from The City, Stories from The Sea' and 'Let England Shake'), she has performed with Josh Homme, Nick Cave, John Parish amongst others and was one of John Peel's favourite artists.  Because of this, to say anything other than glowing praise of her is akin to spitting in the eye of your monarch/president/prime minister or farting at a quiet time of remembrance - i.e., it is not the right thing to do.  Yet there have been times when I have struggled to understand the appeal of some of her work, sometimes it can leave me a little cold and bemused.  But she is also responsible for one of my favourite albums 'Let England Shake' which was released in 2011.  That was one of the most damning condemnation of the British love of war and how the conflicts at the time were seen to the world, it was an album I instantly bonded with and it is still as powerful today as it was when I first pressed play.  The recording of this album was completed as part of an art exhibition at Somerset House where members of the public were allowed in and housed behind a one-way mirror and allowed to hear the album being created in 45 minute spells.  The album see PJ Harvey reunited with acclaimed producer Flood and was created during her travels of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC, during which time she also wrote a book of poetry called 'The Hallow of the Hand'.  But it has been five years since she released 'Let England Shake' and the world has not really changed that much sadly.  But is there still a place for PJ Harvey?  I mean, when this album was released it made the top of the UK charts - but was this on reputation of the artist or on the worth of the record? 

Starting the album is "The Community of Hope" which is a song about her experience being taken around parts of Washington DC by journalist Paul Schwartzman around some of the under privileged parts of the city.  It is a stinging condemnation of the environment that she was presented with, which has gained a love of negative reaction from local politicians of the area who say that PJ Harvey needs to see more of the city.  As someone who has never been there, I can only assume that there is a little more to this; but the fact that it has most been politicians who have bitched about it - I can only assume that there is an element of truth to the words, otherwise they would just ignore it.  The song reminds me of the way The Smiths went about songs - the music is upbeat and powerful, the lyrics are a direct contrast to the music and a classic example of how PJ Harvey can make a stunning statement about any situation.  "The Ministry of Defence" is a song which is about scenes PJ Harvey seen in Afghanistan, describing buildings which has been destroyed, the debris that remains around the streets and how destruction is all around her.  It is a song that stops and starts a bit too much for my liking; yes, it has drama and the music when it is being played is very good.  But it never gets any traction for me, always sounding as if it is going to get somewhere and then it sounds as if it is finishing.  The words are stirring, but the music is flawed.  "A Line in The Sand" is the third song on the album, it is a song about having enough of murder and that things have to change; it feels like a throwback to the style of 'Let England Shake', but without being a carbon copy of the style.  It has a haunted feeling to the music and there are subtle moments all over the song - the song, the drumming, the stark voices - it builds up to a moment that stands out for me and is only just pipped by "The Community of Hope" for song of the album.

"Chain of Keys" is a song that I cannot put my finger on; there is a protest in this song and it is harking back to the songs of the African slaves back in the colonies in years gone by, but it is a song which is sadly needed today as well (otherwise it would not be made today).  It is heavy on the sax and I keep coming back to the song as it intrigues me, but I wish I could find out the full story behind the song as it has a sparse quality as well - it is an enigma that I will have to solve in the future (and it gives hope that this is a grower).  "River Anacostia" is a song about the pollution of the river which runs through Washington DC, the music has a native American feeling about the sound and it seems to mix religious imagery into the song which seems to be hinting that even the presence of the 'divine' and 'holy' would not be able to save the river from the poisoning that has been dealt to the river by the hands of mankind.  It takes a while to get this song, it is a slow number which is very empty in places and full of sound in others; but it is another grower and it is one that warrants further listens. "Near The Memorials to Vietnam & Lincoln" is a strange number indeed; like a lot of this song it does not hold much to having music in the way of instruments, it is almost military in the way it is stripped back and incredibly sparse.  The tale/poem of a day in the capital of the USA is something that needs a little bit of background and at the moment I am struggling to get the full picture.  But I am struggling with this one, I cannot seem to make it stick in my mind and make any real lasting impression sadly.  It is not without want or trying, but it just passes me by each time I listen to it.  "The Orange Monkey" is the seventh song of the album, another poem which is adapted to music, it follows the tale of an Orange Monkey who asked a person to go on a voyage of discovery and to come back and tell the monkey what the person found on the journey.  If follows a peak/trough method with each verse starting low in the vocal range until it reaches a crescendo, the music a backdrop for the words to shine upon and live.  This is a good song that makes more sense with each spin of the record, but it takes a while to sink in once again. Like a lot of this album, it is a slow burner and it will be long in the future till I can make head or tail of its overall message.

"Medicinals" is about the natural foliage that is found about the National Mall in Washington DC, for people who do not know where this is - it is the national park in Washington DC where you will find the Lincoln memorial, the Reflecting Pool and other monuments.  It is talking about how nature is always around and coming through these man made monuments, that whilst we can make this architectural colossus that nature will find a way of coming back and it ends how people are being numbed with man-made pain killers.  This song is one of the few on the album which I understood straight away, like much of the album it is a simple song and it is very simplistic in its delivery, it has a powerful message and that is given time to form and float in the world briefly. Starting with a sample from the 1955 song by Jerry McCain "That's What They Want", "The Ministry of Social Affairs" is a droning number that sounds as if violence and ill-intent is the currency of the evening.  It is another dramatic piece that fills out as the song progresses with a sound that reminds me of the tone used on 'The Dark Night of the Soul' by Sparklehorse and DJ Danger Mouse.  It is another powerful poem, droning music and top heavy on the saxophone and the looping sample of "That's What They Want" combine to make a disturbing and dark piece of music that leaves a lasting impression on you when other songs have failed to drop as much as a glancing graze.  "The Wheel" was the first single to be released off this album, this song about PJ Harvey's journey in Kosovo and her experiences out there as she hears stories about the conflicts raged on in the area.  It starts with a guitar solo and droning music, it actually feels like a distant cousin to "The Glorious Land" from 'Let England Shake' in style and themes.  It is all about the war and the loss of a generation in the name of conquest and domination, it is a strong, powerful and brave song which makes the hairs on your neck stand on end at times.  Ending the album is "Dollar, Dollar" starts with the sounds of a town, people shouting and car horns beeping in the background; it is from PJ Harvey's travels and this time it is in Afghanistan and it tells of the time she was in a car and a begging child came to the car asking for money, the child was malnourished and was struggling with diseases.  She had turned to her companion to see what they could offer, then the traffic took them away and she was left momentarily speechless.  This song is based in sorry and the haunting feeling that comes from the experience is clearly the driving the song forward, it is one of the song on the album where the space between the notes works to elevate the music and does not feel devoid of emotion.  It is a sombre and effective ending to this album, sounding as if the tears are still fresh and the pain will always be real.

This is a really difficult album for me, it has some beautiful moments which are as beautiful and harrowing as anything else PJ Harvey has created.  Songs like "Dollar, Dollar", "The Ministry of Social Affairs" and "The Community of Hope" are beautiful, brave and heart-breaking in places.  But there is also quite a lack in the album as well, sometimes it does not flow in the right way for me and whilst the words are as sharp and effective as ever, the overall result is lacking the impact of other releases which PJ Harvey has released over the years.  It might have taken five years for this album to see the light of day, but it is still under the shadow of 'Let England Shake' and it is too sparse in places for the work to gain traction.  It is not a disappointment, but it is also not as good as it could have been as well.  The heart and message are in the right place, the delivery is sadly lacking at times though.

6 out of ten - Now I see where you were going, but it is not quite there

Top track - The Community of Hope

You can purchase The Hope Six Demolition Project on Amazon here

You can visit the PJ Harvey website here

You can follow the activities of PJ Harvey on Facebook here

You can stream The Hope Six Demolition Project on Deezer here

You can stream The Hope Six Demolition Project on Spotify here

You can stream The Hope Six Demolition Project on Tidal here

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