This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk.
PJ Harvey’s ninth album is one with a message. I know this because it marks the first time that my pre-release copy of an album has come with a lyric booklet, despite the fact that it is perhaps the least oblique thing that the Dorset-born songwriter has ever recorded. Inspired by a series of trips to Washington, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and partly written in full public view as part of an art installation at Somerset House in the summer of 2015, The Hope Six Demolition Project is effectively a travelogue set to music: its lyrics, a series of postcards scrawled from a taxicab window; its music, a combination of found sound and unsettling accompaniments from Harvey and her regular collaborators, Flood and John Parish.
The album’s central theme comes from the “Orange Monkey” of current single fame, who tells Harvey that “to understand, you must travel back in time”. “I took a plane to a foreign land and said ‘I’ll write down what I find’,” comes the response – and it is this which, literally, forms the remainder of the album.
The problem with that, of course, is that it casts the writer in the role of observer and occasional voyeur: something for which Harvey has already been castigated by the residents and former mayor of Washington DC’s Ward 7, the district reduced to “a drug town, just zombies” in the album’s opening track. The song opens with a jaunty melody straight out of 2003’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea and ends with a chanted “they’re gonna put a Walmart here” refrain, dressed up as reportage. There’s a fine line between social commentary and the poverty-as-entertainment format of the likes of Benefits Street, and I’m not sure its transatlantic setting is enough to push this song onto the right side of it.
Similarly, the title of album closer “Dollar, Dollar” – a deeply unsettling listen, spun from a tapestry of Afghani street life – is taken directly from the cries of two beggars the songwriter sees on the other side of a window, and I’m not convinced the images of colonialism and Empire it raises are fully intentional.
Sonically, moments of roughness and melody scattered throughout The Hope Six Demolition Project make the album a more pleasing listen – for this critic at least – than its 2011 predecessor Let England Shake, which won Harvey an unprecedented second Mercury Prize.
Some highlights: the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson echoing Harvey’s bleak recollection of an Afghan village on the rough, challenging “The Ministry of Defence”; the fragments of Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” threaded through a haunted hymn to DC’s heavily polluted “River Anacostia”; and “The Wheel”, a frantic, horrifying tribute to the lost children of the Afghan War. These rough, often ugly diary entries are perhaps a reminder that Harvey has never made music for me, for the fans or for the prize committees, but only for herself.