Harvey's ninth album buzzes with energy, but her stories, for the first time, often make her sound like a tourist unable to scratch the surface of the places she documents.
PJ Harvey caught some heat for "The Community of Hope", the first track off her ninth album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. In it, she hardly flatters a poor neighborhood in Washington D.C. -- Anacostia, which comes up again in another song on the record -- when she describes addicts on the street as "zombies" and the local school as a "shit hole". She makes a point of show there's just one "sit-down restaurant", and the song ends with a towering refrain: "They're gonna build a Walmart here."
The criticisms Harvey faced over the song may have somewhat missed the point. Harvey makes clear this isn't her reading, but rather the reading of a pretty callous tour guide. So maybe this is a song about facing harsh realities, or about the way we deride the most troubled pieces of our communities rather than helping them. The problem is, and what gives criticism of the song some credence, is that it's hard to tell what Harvey is getting at. The song is about the project in the album's title, which hoped to rejuvenate an old housing project by rebuilding it as mixed-income housing, but while the video for the song makes quick mention of this, the song itself seems to miss that context. As a result, the details fall flat and the song, though it's full of charging drums, bright vocal layers, and crunching guitars, sounds sanded down, half-hearted. The Walmart at the end is particularly troubling. In a rebuilt community, presumably with people looking for work, a Walmart that provided a living wage (no guarantee) would be a cause for hope. But Harvey tacks on the refrain quickly and moves on, so it doesn't sound like a comment on the limitation of the free market to help those most in need or like a grand statement about commerce. It just lands like a thin punchline.
It's not a great start for The Hope Six Demolition Project, but it's also not wholly representative. Harvey recorded the record for an audience, in a way. After traveling to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Washington, D.C. with photographer Seamus Murphy, Harvey recorded the album with her band at Somerset House in London. The band recorded behind one-sided glass, and fans could pay to watch the band make the record. It's not the first time Harvey has messed with the notion of process -- 1993's The Four-Track Demos came six months after Rid of Me, offering new context outside of Steve Albini's classic mix -- but it's certainly the most public. It put something at stake during the recording, and Harvey and the band most often sound energized by the challenge.
It may be no surprise that the best moments on the record are rooted in the blues, but what will surprise is how Harvey still makes her relationship to the blues seem fresh. "River Anacostia" feels like much more aching and empathetic ode to forgotten parts of the District of Columbia. The song both pays tribute to the titular river and paints the water as ominous -- "God's gonna trouble the water", voices keep repeating. It's a song that let's Harvey stretch her vocals into high-keening phrases, the kind that made White Chalk and Let England Shake so excellent, but also keep up a much longer-running bluesy rumble. "The Ministry of Social Affairs" has a much more unhinged charge, rising out of an old blues song and ending with a blistering saxophone solo. Along with the jangling rock of "The Wheel", these songs get the closest to what may be under the surface of that community Harvey missed on the album's first song.
These songs hurt but they also writhe and twist with the kind of anger that threatens to crash into fatigue but never does. In "The Wheel", Harvey imagines children dead or disappeared in Afghanistan or Kosovo or the most ignored parts of major American cities as she watches them spin past her on a ride as if in a fading slideshow. But even as she repeats, over and over again, "I watch them fade out," the song never fades with her. Brittle guitar chords and sharp percussion keep grinding along behind her, as if these lost children were the kind of memory you might want, on some level, to forget, though you know you won't.
If the bulk of the record stuck to this path, to using the music and the careful details of the song to evoke the kind of aching, difficult emotions that might help us better understand the unthinkable poverty or loss that happens in so many corners of the world, The Hope Six Demolition Project would be a brilliant collection. Unfortunately, too many of Harvey's details feel too rooted in the physical, unable to see past the surfaces they are stuck on. The healing weeds coming through the pavement on "Medicinals" is interesting, but the homeless, Native American woman drinking in a wheelchair is ham-handed at best and dehumanizing at worst. In other places, the songs just feel uncomfortable. The title phrase of "Near the Memorials of Vietnam and Lincoln" gets shoehorned into the chorus and turns the song grating before it can even get going. The military roll of "Chain of Keys" bogs down the first half of the record, with its big group vocals hanging on trite images like the "dusty ground", trying hang emphasis on empty words merely by upping the musical dramatics.
These moments stumble musically, but most of the record actually sounds great. It's a vibrant record that can play smoothly along, but catching the details can derail you. Too many of the details and character sketches feel researched rather than understood. So while the album has too many interesting moments to totally dismiss it, the problem that do come up are glaring. So many PJ Harvey albums -- whether she was writing about America or England or no particular place at all -- felt like their own worlds, like places Harvey knew deep in her bones. On The Hope Six Demolition Project, the album just sometimes sounds flat uncomfortable with its focus. And that, finally, is what drags the record down. When it fails, Harvey isn't living in a world. She's just a tourist.