by Phil Scarisbrick
The first hand experiences and extensive research that PJ Harvey put into her ninth album means that, five years on, it still remains one of her most essential collections
Released some five years before, Let England Shake set a new benchmark for Polly Jean Harvey as the record swept up critical acclaim and accolades. An oblique odyssey into Englishness, it confirmed what the initiated already knew: that she was a formidable artist with a unique way of conveying her view of the world. Her Mercury Prize win (a second after 2001’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea), catapulted her into the homes of wider audiences. Having a half decade wait for its follow-up then is most likely a record company’s worst nightmare. Not that that would concern an artist who is so meticulous in her construction of her projects. This diligence led Harvey through Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington D.C. with photographer Seamus Murphy, as they documented what would inform her ninth studio album – Hope Six Demolition Project.
Not only was the composition of the album a unique journey, but the recording process was too. Recorded in front of live audiences behind one-way glass at Somerset House over a month in early 2015, the whole event was documented by Murphy who released the book, The Hollow of the Hand, which included photos from the project alongside Harvey’s poetry.
The ‘Hope Six’ of the title is a reference to a housing project in the USA. On the surface, the initiative looked like a philanthropic exercise to help those in the most deprived areas have access to better quality housing. The reality, though, seemed to veer significantly from what was promised. Only 12% of the displaced residents ended up in the replacement housing. There were also issues of corruption, cronyism and outright fraud taking place, with grant money being misused and viable houses being demolished unnecessarily.
The United States’ involvements in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Kosovo – although different in their genesis – were both enacted under the guise of aiming to improve the lives of the residents of the respective regions. Both had been under the control of oppressive regimes, with Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban eventually removed power and NATO ‘peace-keeping’ forces taking control to restore democracy.
The thread that binds all three is the abdication of responsibility by the US Government – leaving unfinished business and allowing corruption to thrive. Harvey’s experiences of seeing these regions first hand, and the fallout of the actions of the American establishment, led to the composition of this stunning album.
Sonically, the record is more akin to her first Mercury Prize winner than the more restrained Let England Shake; its intoxicating rock soundtrack seeping with exhilarating energy from every pore. It provides the perfect dynamic to deliver the vitriol, heartbreak and frustration that Harvey clearly feels towards what she witnessed on her travels.
Opener, The Community of Hope, documents the tour that Harvey took of one of the affected areas of Washington D.C. There is a matter-of-fact-ness to the way she conveys her experiences – describing the homeless population as ‘zombies’ and the school as a ‘shithole’, drawing criticism from local activists. The disclaimer of ‘or at least that’s what I’m told’ conjures the image of her retelling the information that she was given by her guide, the Washington Post reporter, Paul Schwartzmann, who she eventually used to give an introduction to the video for the single.
The chugging, staccato guitars of Ministry of Defence’s intro evoke the motorik relentlessness of automatic gun fire. The visceral imagery of the lyrics combines with this soundtrack to transport you into the towns and cities of Afghanistan that were affected by the war. ‘Broken glass, a white jawbone / Syringes, razors, a plastic spoon / Human hair, a kitchen knife / And the ghost of a girl who runs and hides,’ sings Harvey – with a baritone backing vocals from collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey adding a sense of communal impact. An errant saxophone makes brief appearances to add to the feeling of jeopardy before Harvey concludes, ‘This is how the world will end’.
Chain of Keys was inspired by an interaction that Harvey had with an elderly woman in Kosovo. The military mantra-like delivery from the group vocals embeds the idea that the place she is describing was in the eye of the storm of the war. The story tells of a woman who holds the keys to her neighbours’ houses, despite the fact that they are probably dead, but she still has a tiny bit of hope that they will one day return. ‘The dusty ground’s a dead-end track / The neighbours won’t be coming back / Fifteen gardens overgrown / Fifteen houses falling down,’ chants Harvey, placing the image of what she witnessed firmly into your mind’s eye. ‘Imagine what her eyes have seen / We ask but she won’t let us in,’ is a double entendre that may refer to her refusing to let them into the empty houses, but may also be a reference to her being closed off emotionally, refusing to let reality engulf her.
River Anacostia is a waterway in D.C. that was an area of natural beauty when Europeans first arrived in the 17th Century, and became a hub of naval development and then fell into ruin as the industries that had thrived there moved away or shut down. It is a set of circumstances that will feel familiar to many who have been brought up in former industrial hubs that have long since diminished into architectural wastelands – haunted by the ghosts of what once was. The sea shanty-esque backing mantra – ‘Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water,’ adds more haunting properties to the already gothic imagery.
Perhaps the biggest divergence from Let England Shake is the way that Harvey uses history. On that album, she used places like Gallipoli and Iraq to explore history, but on this record she did the opposite. She used history to understand the places she visited, and to ascertain how they became the way they are. The Orange Monkey explains this as she sings, ‘Told Me 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.’ This approach definitely helps her avoid misty-eyed nostalgia and focus on what is important.
Returning to her time in Kosovo, The Wheel analyses the heartbreaking disappearance and murder of thousands of children during the conflict. The manic guitars of the intro fight with a lone saxophone for supremacy, before Harvey sings, ‘A revolving wheel of metal chairs / Hung on chains squealing,’ referring to a fairground ride that spins around high up. As the children disappear into the distance, their screams dissipate, before returning to fill the air. The chorus uses a call-and-answer format as Harvey sings, ‘Hey little children don’t disappear,’ before a group vocal fires back ‘I heard it was 28,000’. It seems to be a play on the quote often wrongly attributed to Joseph Stalin, ‘The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’. Harvey’s lone voice feels compelled to find answers, while the masses stand by and comment with ambivalence.
The album’s closer, Dollar, Dollar, is based on an interaction Harvey had with a child begging on the streets of Afghanistan. Starving and malnourished, the child was a husk of humanity. A member of the forgotten majority that were purported to be the beneficiaries of being freed from the oppressive regime that came before, this child was robbed of all innocence and joy, forced to beg for the most meagre of donations so that they could stay alive for one more day. Once again, the saxophone is the star of the soundtrack as it encapsulates all the angst and sorrow that Harvey felt about what she was confronted by. This final track fades away as it started, with children’s voices and the sound of heavy traffic bristling away to transport us into the location of the narrative.
Despite the overt political messaging on the record, it is hard to draw any clear conclusions from the project that weren’t already obvious. The United States sees itself as the gatekeeper of democracy and will use their almighty military strength to impose it wherever they see fit. The collateral damage of this focus, though, is the human fallout both at home and abroad. The destitution that she witnessed in areas that were meant to have become safer, cleaner areas for the poorest to live in were nothing more than a gentrified veneer that enabled the corruption and misuse of funds that occured. The bullet-holed buildings and mistreated children of Afghanistan and Kosovo showed that democracy is merely a means to an end, and, unless you see the job through, it is a shallow victory that still leaves many in poverty.
The fact that Harvey felt compelled to write this record – to meticulously research it and witness the impact first hand – gives it the integrity that many of the naysayers said it lacked. She went and saw for herself and documented those experiences into a record that still feels important today. Harvey once said, ‘I think that most art is asking a question or is looking for something, looking for answers and that is what life seems to be about for most people.’ This record encapsulates this in abundance, and remains one of her most essential albums to date.
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