PJ Harvey has never been a chameleon who adapts to the trends and changes in popular music. Rather, Ms. Harvey has always followed her own vision, popularity be damned. She likely could have continued making records that sounded like the critically acclaimed, guitar driven Rid of Me (1993) and parlayed it into wider success during an era where Hole reigned supreme. Nope, she released an album, To Bring You My Love (1995), that sounded more like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Each of Harvey’s successive records has been a diversion from the previous release. Her latest release, The Hope Six Demolition Project, isn’t so much of a diversion from her past, but a synthesis of those past albums. That said, it is a high-concept album that tackles world politics and was recorded as an art exhibit at London’s Somerset House. Titled “Recording In Progress,” Harvey and her band recorded the albums tracks behind one-way glass observable to the museums patrons.
The lyrics, themes, and topics that pervade Hope Six were inspired by Ms. Harvey’s travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C. Taking a semi-anthropological approach, Harvey chose not just to write about the socio-political issues of these places, but to visit them personally to gain a deeper insight to both the issues and the places. As you may expect, this is a politically charged album. Personally, I don’t get to worked up over an artists, celebrity, or athletes political views. PJ Harvey could be singing about washing the dishes for all I care. If the songs and music are good, let’s jam. If you want greater insight into the political themes and reactions to this album, click any of the links within this sentence. Otherwise, I’m here to give you some perspective on the music and songs.
Not unlike her other recent albums, Harvey is joined on Hope Six by many of her frequent collaborators and producers. Producer/guitarist John Parish, producer/multi-instrumentalists Mick Harvey (former Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), and producer extraordinaire Flood are all here, as well as Gallon Drunk’s James Johnston and Terry Edwards, Blur and Gorillaz collaborator Mike Smith, and producer/former-Eleven, Alain Johannes to flesh out the band. The band is stripped to the bare essentials for an album that is driven by the vocals and stories of each song. Gang vocals, group-chorus, and choirs are abundant, as Harvey sounds more like a confident vocalist and storyteller and less like the emotionally tortured anti-goddess of her past. This aspect of the production also offers an interesting contrast to the lyrical themes of struggle and socio-political divides.
When guitars get loud, they’re never distorted or part of an obligatory loud-quiet-loud song pattern. Rather, they sound like late-70’s post-punk or tones more reminiscent of Harvey’s past collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996). Mick Harvey’s presence is also felt on the more cinematic cuts, like “A Line In the Sand,” “Chain of Keys,” and “River Anacostia.” Here’s where we see an eclectic array of instruments subtly bleed into the mix. Saxophones, harmonicas, accordions, autoharps, mellotrons, synths, keyboards, and organs color the songs appropriately. Past albums, such as Is This Desire? (1998), and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), are good sonic reference points to Hope Six. Restrained, yet ferocious. Melodic, yet dissonant. Ms. Harvey has long ago mastered the craft of balancing melancholy and anger to build and release tension in a song. On Hope Six, she continues down this path.
Other highlights include, “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” a track that ends in what sounds like a tribute to Jazz legend Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. A cacophony of horns sputter and buzz wildly to an exhausted conclusion. “The Wheel” is a driving rock song polished with horns that features Harvey delivering a reverb-laden vocal backed by the call-back group vocals of her band. “Ministry of Defence” is a good track to summarize the album. Beginning with a familiar PJ Harvey Dry/Rid of Me style staccato guitar riff and Harvey’s expansive vocals, the track picks up a choir on the chorus to sing, “Human hair/a kitchen knife/and a ghost of a girl/who runs and hides.” On the surface, all of these songs are ear pleasing. The deeper you dig, the darker it gets.
PJ Harvey has delivered another record that instantly reminds you why you became enchanted with her in the first place. There’s a vision realized on Hope Six that is palatable to the ear. If you’re a PJ Harvey fan, you’ll certainly enjoy this album. If you’re new to Polly Jean, why not start here? If you’re intrigued by this there’s a whole watershed waiting to flood your ears in the form of her back catalog. In an age where we are short on true artists, I’m thankful PJ Harvey is out there doing her thing.
– J. Kevin Lynch