FEW ARTISTS can hope to surpass or, at the very least, match PJ Harvey’s tremendous quarter-century hot streak. Since her brilliant 1992 debut Dry, Harvey has released a string of follow-up albums of varying degrees of excellence. Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea regularly, and rightly, appear on Best Of lists (you name their topic and temporal scope). Even Harvey’s secondary and tertiary works—such as Is This Desire?, Uh Huh Her, and White Chalk—ought to inspire tantrums of envy from her peers. If given the chance, I suspect more than a few up-and-coming musicians would trade a newborn child to one day approach the quality of her weakest albums. And, tell me, who else could have transformed the mass slaughter of World War I into the grace and power Polly Harvey delivered on her 2011 masterstroke Let England Shake? If your first answer is Bob Dylan, you’ve only proved my fundamental point.
The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey’s ninth proper LP, not only further etches her legacy into the marble edifice of rock history, it continues the mini-comeback Let England Shake began. With The Hope Six Demolition Project, Harvey fully sheds the spectral balladry and folky shuffles of White Chalk and Let England Shake, respectively. It marks a welcome return to the bombast and theatricality of her earliest records, filtered through the sky-scraping tunefulness of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. And yet, these eleven joyous anthems and campfire sing-alongs find Harvey striding across fresh stylistic ground. Despite their bleak topicality, vibrant optimism radiates out from lyrical melancholy. Sonic warmth envelops the album like a sumptuous blanket.
Polly Harvey’s travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the District of Columbia provide The Hope Six Demolition Project with its thematic source material. Her Tocquevillian observations of war and poverty’s wreckage have led to considerable hand-wringing, and some genuine outrage, from a leftward direction. Some people, I think, have mistaken irony and shifting perspectives for callousness and opportunism. Had these critics laid down their arms long enough to digest the full scope of Hope Six’s achievement—a bravura display of hope against hopelessness—perhaps they could’ve avoided such friendly fire.
It’s true that Harvey offers zero policy solutions to fix her devastating tableau of human suffering. She instead employs collective singing, vivid instrumentation, and soaring melodies to counter a sense of overwhelming fatalism. Voices join in unison to drown out the ugliness of “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln”, “The Ministry of Defense”, and “Chain of Keys”. Honking saxophones cut through the murkiness of “A Line in the Sand” and “The Ministry of Social Affairs”. Piercing refrains bring light to darkness on “River Anacostia” and “Dollar, Dollar”. Hope Six’s two finest songs, “The Wheel” and “The Community of Hope”, draw on all of the above tactics with jaw-dropping aplomb.
A straight line connects The Hope Six Demolition Project to Bruce Springsteen’s equally wonderful We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. That album was a shambolic love letter to Pete Seeger’s protest songs, which Springsteen recorded as a response to the horrors of the Iraq war. We Shall Overcome bursted with a raucous spirit that laughed in the face of evil. PJ Harvey may be humorless, but she understands redemption and uplift. The Hope Six Demolition Project should, indeed, frustrate listeners looking for the hard answers Harvey can’t give. For those seeking guidance with regard to broken governments, armed conflict, and debilitating poverty—maybe reach for a book, not a pop album. If it’s solace you’re after, The Hope Six Demolition Project has a few remarkable tunes you might want to hear. A MINUS