This is definitely a time for the five-year comebacks. After M83 released their seventh, and Radiohead, their ninth, now it’s the mercurial PJ Harvey’s turn. After the Mercury Award-winning album Let England Shake, Harvey and photographer/filmmaker Seamus Murphy travelled to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington DC, where she wrote the songs for the album as well as her poetry book The Hollow of the Hand.
Later on, the album was created in sessions open to the public as part of an art installation at Somerset House in London called Recording in Process, albeit, with cell phones and devices with recording capabilities confiscated.
The album opens up with The Community of Hope which directly references the Hope VI projects in the United States, where run-down public housing in areas with high crime rates has been demolished from which the album‘s title is also referenced from.
It discusses the uselessness of the project, yielding the lyrics “OK, now this is just drug town, just zombies. But that’s just life”. It sets a precursor to the rest of the album, unforgiving, unapologetic, and a damning commentary of the social life. However, it drew criticism directly from the politicians and landed her in hot water. That’s PJ Harvey for you, straightforward to the core.
The Ministry of Defense follows similar lines, with Harvey almost feeling angry, whilst lambasting the defence for their actions in Afghanistan. A Line in the Sand would be about the troubled UN Peacekeepers in the Balkans conflict.
River Anacostia details the negligence of the ‘forgotten’ river of D.C., posing a serious health. The album seemingly speeds up after River Anacostia, with Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln and The Orange Monkey proving themselves as the most immediate songs on the album.
The Orange Monkey, especially, dives into the history of the places Harvey and Murphy to understand how places came to be the way they are right now, and how war has changed their culture. Medicinals is a growling acoustic punk number, about the disenfranchisement of Native Americans, and the disappearance of the traditional remedies that the Natives provided.
The Ministry of Social Affairs, sees Harvey question the government about the treatment and handling of the differently abled and the poor by them while underlining what the government really wants. The lead single of the album, The Wheel, is intensely evocative, and yet ambiguous.
Behind a wall of intense guitars and saxophone, the line “I heard it was 28000” repeats all over the songs, perhaps referring to the oft-repeated statistic about US gun deaths between 2002 and 2012, or, the number of troops that NATO wanted to send during the Balkan wars, or, the number of children working on Kabul’s street in 1996, linking the three locations that The Hope Six Demolition Project covers.
The final song Dollar, Dollar sees Harvey encountering an actual poor, begging child in Afghanistan, and makes Harvey question whether travelling the world, watching people and writing songs, actually does any good, akin to Kendrick Lamar’s How Much A Dollar Cost.
The album, musically, is cut from the same cloth as that of Let England Shake, with the trumpets, wailing guitars, lots of acoustic instruments, John Parrish singing and observational lyrics, completing a metamorphosis from the noisy blues-rock complementing lyrics detailing the female experience.
However, this album may seem less immediate than Let England Shake, partly because it’s not as good, and partly it’s harder to understand than its predecessor’s elegantly crafted evocation of the First World War. It also becomes taxing, after a few listens, and there is no one song you could reach out to. Yet, she has been such a model of consistency for the past 20-odd years, and only her contemporary Radiohead, can match her in those twenty. Here’s to another 20 years of wonderful, thought-provoking, Polly Jean Harvey music.