I’ve become accustomed to staying loyal to musicians I’ve loved in the past, seeking out one or two good tracks on their latest albums, singing their praise for hanging in there and continuing to work hard, even if they don’t always stay relevant, even if they’re not evolving, even if perhaps they’re not quite at their best. I went to Bob Mould’s show at Webster Hall recently even though his album was not a great album at all.
I’ve gotten used to buying PJ Harvey’s albums, knowing that nothing would quite get me like “Dry” or some of the tracks on “To Bring You My Love.”
“The Hope Six Demolition Project” is possibly PJ Harvey’s best album, and one of the best albums of 2016.
The album starts out understated and deceptively anything but original and groundbreaking – a simple three chord progression on a guitar with drums and bass. PJ Harvey’s unmissable voice (oh how I’ve missed it!) singing careful lyrics on a simple melody. The song works its way into you, and by the time the backing vocals arrive for the chorus, the song is ready to embed itself in your head.
The lyrics tell of some impoverished neighborhood in decline and ruin, a “drug town” full of zombies where “they’re gonna build a Wallmart.” Wikipedia tells me “The album’s title is a reference to the HOPE VI projects in the United States” and that “Harvey wrote the songs for The Hope Six Demolition Project as well as her poetry book The Hollow of the Hand during her travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C. with photographer/filmmaker Seamus Murphy between 2011 and 2014.”
The imagery of post-war ruin and decay, of human carnage, strikes you long before you even sit down to study the lyrics, even if you hadn’t read about Harvey’s travels to Kosovo and Afghanistan. The subject matter becomes obvious as the occasional phrase and word works its way into your brain.
The second track starts off with the band hammering time in unison like a demented throwback to something like Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” Multiple backing tracks are breathing in unison, raising the tension, and a Welsh-sounding voice intones along with Harvey at key phrases, seeming to point out sights like a tour guide: “This is the ministry of defense,” the voice says, and Harvey sings that “the stairs and the walls are all that’s left, mortar holes let through the air.” Next on the tour is “the ministry of remains” where PJ Harvey sings a collage of “broken glass, a white jawbone, syringes, razors, a plastic spoon, human hair, a kitchen knife.”
The unhinged sax solo might be PJ Harvey herself – the credits list her for tenor saxophone.
Before reading about Harvey’s war-zone travels, I had the feeling “Line in the sand” was some kind of genocide song: “how to stop the murdering? by now we should have learned” she sings.
This album is Harvey’s attempt to process, understand, capture, release, convey some measure of what she has seen, and “what I’ve seen, yes it’s changed how I see humankind.”
“We set up tents, brought in water, air drops were dispersed
I saw people kill each other just to get there first.”
In “Chain of keys” Harvey sings a mysterious song of an old woman carrying keys to fifteen houses whose inhabitants “won’t be coming back” presumably because they are part of the “seven or eight thousand” referred to in “Line in the Sand” who were “killed by hand.”
“River Anacostia” is as beautiful as anything on “To bring you my love” or “Uh huh her,” and as poignant as any of her later works such as the haunting title track from “White chalk.”
These songs work their way deeper and deeper into your mind, and as you listen a fourth and fifth time, you realize what an understated surprise is at work here in possibly the most powerful PJ Harvey album to date.
“Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” is centered around acoustic guitar, accordion and flute, but despite lacking a full percussion track, it is intense and powerful. The song seems to juxtapose the prior war-carnage with overfed bodies “lumbering over the grass to squeeze into plastic chairs” and a boy who “throws out his hands as if to feed the starlings but really […] throws nothing – it’s just to watch them jump.” It does not take any forcing of metaphors to see the boy as a placeholder for the puppet masters, the ruling elites responsible for states of war.
What “Memorials” lacks in percussion, “The Orange Monkey” makes up for, with layers of careful and restrained texture – sax, guitar, variophon, keyboards. This is possibly my favorite track on the album, reminding me of Kate Bush’s “There goes a tenner.”
“Medicinals” laments the “new painkiller” that has superseded the “medicinals” of the “native people,” as Harvey hears the voices of the old plants calling to her, assuring her “we are always here” even as the song rises out of the heavy percussive melody and soars and Harvey sings of the “woman sitting in the wheelchair” sipping on that new painkiller.
Harvey’s blues influences, which have been intertwined into her music since her earliest work (check out her cover of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”) are front and center in the sampled blues song that runs beneath “Ministry of Social Affairs,” wherein Harvey shows us “an amputee and a pregnant hound sit[ting] by young men with withered arms as if death had already passed.”
That blues influence is present again in the “wade in the water” refrain in “River Anacostia.” One assumes the frantic disturbed sax solo is, again, the work of Harvey.
As “River” fades out, “The Wheel” busts in like an unapologetic and unabashed rock song, with wailing lead guitar, horns, percussion and handclaps, making the earlier PJ Harvey of “Rid of Me” sound frivolous and silly, a party girl who has grown up and left behind the demands of “lick my legs I’m on fire” in favor of a righteous rage and a search for meaning in the ruins of humanity.
Once the vocals start, the guitars rock out like a Who song, the horns blast like an Iggy Pop backing track, as the wheel revolves, sounding like a fairground ride and like an explosion and like a death machine all at the same time:
“A revolving wheel of metal chairs hung on chains, squealing four little children flying out
now you seen them, now you don’t, faces, limbs, a bouncing skull
little children, don’t disappear (I heard it was twenty-eight thousand)”
Street sounds and traffic noises fade us into “Dollar, Dollar,” the last track, where street hawkers cry out “dollar dollar” and Harvey wants to offer a “pock-marked and hollow[-faced]” child something but the car pulls away and leaves him fading “in the mirror glass.”
Working with new textures, new instrumentation, alongside old long-term collaborators like John Parish and Mick Harvey, PJ Harvey reminds us why we fell in love with indie rock back in the 90s, while making us pause and realize that there is more to life than indie rock.