by Kelly Johnson
PJ Harvey is one of my favorite artists of all time. I thought I should lay out that bias right at the beginning so you can regard or disregard my opinion as you see fit. The first time I heard Rid of Me back in college I was stunned. I had to have everything. I tracked down demos, Peel Sessions, watched old, low quality concert footage. I couldn’t get enough; PJ Harvey is a subversive and uncompromising artist that rewards a deep immersion in her music. Her output generally defies easy categorization and straightforward subject matter. The Hope Six Demolition Project isn’t any different, although this time I’ve been struggling with the effectiveness of her observational presentation. What is her intent?
The first single and leadoff track on the album, “The Community of Hope,” drummed up some controversy with its seemingly cold and detached lyrics about the poorer areas of Washington, D.C. The song originates from Harvey receiving a tour of the Anacostia neighborhood by Paul Schwartzman, a cab driver unaware of her status as an artist. The resulting lyrics are an almost strictly observational account of what she saw from this ride (Here’s the old mental institution/Now the Homeland Security base), save a couple of strongly worded bits of commentary: “OK, now this is just drug town/Just zombies, but that’s just life,” “The school just looks like a shithole/Does that look like a nice place?” All of this punctuated by the final declaration, “They’re gonna put a Wal-Mart here.” Upon its release, the song drew the ire and criticism from local politicians denouncing Harvey’s off-the-cuff lyrics as insensitive and uninformed.
When I first heard the song and read the criticisms, I too had mixed feelings. How effective is this method of storytelling? To what end is she presenting these plain, knee-jerk observations? PJ Harvey has already demonstrated her acute sensibilities in communicating the political (Let England Shake), the personal (Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea) and the character-driven (To Bring You My Love, Is this Desire?). The problem with evaluating the lyrics to “The Community of Hope” as a single is that it removes the song from the context of the album as a whole. Taken at face value, the lyrics do seem cold and dismissive, and that’s the point. Harvey is documenting her honest and human observation, warts and all. It’s a wide-eyed, optimistic-sounding composition that’s sets Harvey off on her journey.
“The Ministry of Defence,” the second track, takes a similar fly-on-the-wall tone in detailing Harvey’s trip to war-torn Afghanistan. The beginning of the album is the start of her journey. As a listener, we are right there with her, and her observations and thoughts become more nuanced as the album continues. “Medicinals” reflects on natural painkilling remedies versus chemical while she strolls through the National Mall; “Near the Memorials of Vietnam and Lincoln” evokes subtle images of false salvation in ordinary, everyday circumstances (A boy throws out his hands/As if to feed the starlings/But really he throws nothing/It’s just to watch them jump). There’s still a lot of indirect language, but the common thread deals with intervention and false promises, and coping with the aftermath when that intervention goes wrong.
The music on The Hope Demolition Project is a great combination of PJ Harvey’s “most rockingest” tendencies. “The Community of Hope” is straightforward rock ‘n’ roll á la Stories from the City’s “Good Fortune.” “The Ministry of Defence” is a minimal, grimy hard-hitter that wouldn’t be out of place on Uh Huh Her. “The Wheel” might be my favorite all-out rock song that she’s released since “Who the Fuck?” Instead of the all-out bashing of WtF, “The Wheel” rides a steady, intense rhythm punctuated by tenor and baritone saxophone. Flood’s production hits hard without sounding too polished.
PJ Harvey never offers easy answers in her music, and this can make her albums frustrating at times. But to dismiss her as uncaring or thoughtless discredits the attentive and scrupulous work she puts into her craft. I was unsure how to react to The Hope Six Demolition Project at first, but it forced me to dig in deeper to its subject matter, purpose of intent and presentation of ideas. I strongly urge you to do the same.