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PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

9.3

In 2011, PJ Harvey did something virtually unprecedented. Two decades into a stellar career, the woman and/or band released an album as passionate and compelling as anything she’d ever recorded. I’m not alone in this assessment – Let England Shake won the year’s Mercury Prize, the juried award for best UK album. A scan of past winners reveals that honorees have invariably been early-career efforts. Not only is Harvey the sole repeat winner, but 2001’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is also the only other veteran nod (her landmark debut Dry arrived months before the award’s 1992 inception).

Nonetheless, Polly Harvey’s latest project carries a few warning flags. She traveled with videographer Seamus Murphy to gather source material from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and a war-torn city of another sort – Washington DC. Their collaboration has already yielded the poetry/photography book The Hollow of the Hand, issued last fall. The audio portion of the endeavor was recorded in public view, a performance art piece somewhere between Marina Abramovic and Storefront Hitchcock. For the famously reclusive Harvey, it seemed the musical output risked becoming almost an afterthought.

While The Hope Six Demolition Project continues Let England Shake’s lyrical themes of war’s human toll, the perpetually evolving Harvey finds plenty of ways to alter the equation. Gritty saxophones (played by both Polly herself and a passel of guests) fill the prominent role occupied by the last album’s more mystical autoharp. Harvey deploys a male chorus – populated with longtime collaborators like Mick Harvey and co-producers John Parish and Flood – adding depth and call-and-response to several tracks. Most importantly, the band rocks as hard and as approachably as at any time since Stories from the City on standout tracks like “The Community of Hope” and “The Wheel.”

Lyrically Harvey makes few declarations, focusing on statements of observation from her travels – Murphy’s field recordings also figure into several tracks. She’s already taken flak for perceived fly-over journalism and a condescending attitude toward the blighted DC neighborhood that provides the album’s title, on “The Community of Hope.” A parse of the words reveals no factual stretches, however, and Harvey even qualifies her impressions with “At least that’s what I’m told.” While I doubt anyone likes hearing their neighborhood described as a “shithole,” to these eyes the perspective is more sympathetic (and in the advance video, hopeful) than condemning.

Meanwhile, Polly’s voice is in finer form than ever, she’s found an issue that has unquestionably fueled her creative fire, and the musical foundation has returned her love of early American blues to the forefront, albeit in a more polyglot fashion. If The Hope Six Demolition Project isn’t on the 2016 Mercury Prize shortlist, it’ll be a sign that voters have decided Harvey is already too weighted down with trophies, or that the British press has discovered a whole new batch of Dizzee Rascals.

PJ Harvey
The Hope Six Demolition Project
[Vagrant/Island]