The Hope Six Demolition Project
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Over the past 25 years, few musicians have wielded as powerful of a penchant for leaving enduring impressions on listeners’ ears and minds as the inimitable Polly Jean Harvey. This trend continues on Harvey’s recently released ninth studio album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which includes a handful of tracks that are sure to stick with you.
“A Line in the Sand” mixes eerie, serpentine melodies with a nervous, shuffling groove to create a uniquely unsettling vibe. Harvey’s voice soars on “River Anacostia,” which interpolates the spiritual “Wade in the Water” to powerful effect. On the hard-driving “Medicinals,” meanwhile, she sings an angular melody that twists its way through, around, and above a chorus of saxophones.
To be sure, there are also some less successful moments. The liberal use of a backing chorus, almost always singing in unison with Harvey, can feel heavy-handed, and the bright “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” grates. Still, the music of The Hope Six Demolition Project is consistently good and occasionally great.
But music is, at most, only half of the story here. The songs of The Hope Six Demolition Project, Harvey’s first album in five years, were composed during trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C. The album’s title is drawn from HOPE VI, a US public housing project that is referenced directly in the opening track, “The Community of Hope.” Observations drawn from these travels form the basis of the album’s lyrical content and, for many, it will be the lyrics, not the music, that make or break this album.
To my taste, the travel journal approach to lyrics yields a mixed bag. Sometimes Harvey crafts a wonderful mixture of imagery and imagination. On “The Orange Monkey,” for example, she supposes that a mountain range’s “jagged shelves” and “shadows sheer” are the result of the underlying tectonic plates’ expression of “the pain of fifty million years.” At other times, particularly when they reach for something broader than descriptions of specific locales, the lyrics can seem stilted or cliché. When, earlier in “The Orange Monkey,” Harvey sings “I took a plane to a foreign land / And said ‘I’ll write down what I find,’” she ends up sounding like a college sophomore eagerly anticipating a semester abroad.
Most intriguing, though, are the moments at which Harvey’s lyrics raise questions that are not only aesthetic but also moral. Consider, for example, the album’s opening track, “The Community of Hope.” Artistically, there is much to recommend the song. It is tuneful, energetic, and concise. The verses’ litanies of images, which describe impoverished sections of D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, are memorable, and the coda’s repeated line—“they’re gonna put a Wal-Mart here”—is at once banal and surreal.
Yet it is difficult to consider the artistic merits of “The Community of Hope” without also considering its politically charged topic. Harvey deserves credit for drawing attention to the issues facing Anacostia. Beyond the optimistic message implied by the song’s title and upbeat groove, however, “The Community of Hope” proposes no solutions to the problems it describes—as politicians and community leaders in Washington have been quick to point out. Leah Garrett, the spokesperson for the D.C.-based nonprofit The Community of Hope, asked in an open letter to Harvey whether the song does not merely belittle “the place that, for better or worse, is home to people who are working to make it better, who take pride in their accomplishments?”
The music video for “The Community of Hope” only underlines its apparent deficiencies. A montage alternates between scenes of everyday Anacostia and what appears to be stock footage of uplifting bits of Americana—a flag rippling in the wind, the Statue of Liberty seen from across water a candlelight vigil, a church service, etc. In the end, it comes off as obvious and tone-deaf, feeling more like a glossy advertisement than a trenchant piece of social commentary.
If “The Community of Hope” has nothing more than hopeful images and ideas to offer the residents of Anacostia, is that enough? Or is Harvey, who stands to profit from the song, exploiting their plight? Are we, as consumers of her music, complicit in that exploitation? Would we feel differently if, as on 2011’s Mercury Prize winning Let England Shake, Harvey was singing about a community of which she is a member?
There is almost certainly more than one right answer to each of these questions. We can imagine what Leah Garrett’s answers would look like, and she may be right. Then again, I know that I would not be thinking about Anacostia today if not for PJ Harvey, and I suspect I am not alone in this realization. Though it does not always provide the answers, The Hope Six Demolition Project prompts many a worthwhile question. That may not be enough, but it is certainly not for nothing.
Notable Tracks: “A Line in the Sand” | “Medicinals” | “River Anacostia” | “The Community of Hope”