PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island)

PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island)

To record The Hope Six Demolition Project PJ Harvey created an artisan Big Brother: an inversion in which the contestants, with no fear of eviction, quietly get on with the serious business of creating Art while viewers read too much into it until they’re asked to leave. It’s a distancing technique, much like those post punk groups first nicked from visual artists nearly forty years ago. Harvey has always insisted her songs are not entirely personal and this was a profitable way of reminding us thickos.

The astute among you will have already realised Harvey is a serious artist dealing with serious subjects on the release of her anti-war album, Let England Shake, which was followed by trips to war zones and a volume of poetry. If so, you may consider the Somerset House sessions a heavy-handed gesture that betrays the performer’s distrust of her audience. You may think the glass wall she erected suggests a haughty disdain for the peasants. More charitable observers may have seen self-parody in the very literal liberal bubble.

Recording In Progress spoke of the scrutiny we give the motives of contemporary public figures, but her music has long defied autobiographical interpretation. Songs such as ‘The Wind’ and ‘White Chalk’, to name but two, are like fragments of letters from past generations, left to be deciphered. Chancing upon their clues can elicit joy and even renew purpose.

So what of this new album? It’s one for those who slow as they pass twisted car crashes; who can’t keep a straight face at Remembrance services. Moments of disquiet, born of helpless guilt, are swiftly assuaged by a high church Anglican holiness that finds the subjects’ solemn dignity. Remember, heaven is a place without hope. Jesus, though, it’s mostly a riot. Imagine if the Velvet Underground had used ‘The Gift’ as a starting point for a concept album of blackly comic short stories.

The horror is reported in a manner so detached, safe and serene, it’s unreal. The gates of hell, the effects of war and litter are all equal. Ghosts of girls walk among survivors swallowing offal. Graffiti in biro predicts the world will end, but this is no apocalypse; it will go on and no-one can be judged. ‘A Line In The Sand’ has a shaken but resolute belief in the possibility of progress. However, Harvey is more convincing when rubbing the human face in its own vomit. The instincts that make us strive to fit in may also override individual conscience. For instance, given a uniform and the right circumstances, we would be likely to commit acts of torture. We may tell ourselves otherwise, to convince ourselves we’re good, but guilt is no less useless a gut reaction than callous humour.

This is travel writing, rather than polemic. The primary comparison is the implied one between the narrator’s habits and those of the people she observes. We aren’t privy to the differences between their past experiences, their expectations and their present. Thus, we get idle glosses on moments in strangers’ lives. Take, for example, the patronising portrait of a native American woman drinking alcohol, fermented sugars being, apparently, a “new painkiller.” More appealingly, travel writing permits hearsay, legend and shadows, where phantasmagoria fascinate the senses. Meddling with magic for escapism has a limit, though. Harvey begins her journey in the back of a car, touring poor streets in Washington. By the end, she’s scrabbling around the back seat for loose change: some small token to pay off a fearful apparition. Is her impulse to help, or to buy herself the right to look away?

Released 15/4/2016

8 thoughts on “PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island)

  1. What does the album *sound* like, James? You’ve done your best to be articulate about the whole ‘artist as observer’/’the observed as art’ malarkey, but you’re writing about a fucking record. It has music.

    Spotted the Ballard/Manics reference by the way.

    1. Just trying to give James a help

      ‘Imagine if the Velvet Underground had used ‘The Gift’ as a starting point for a concept album of blackly comic short stories.’

      1. That’s the solitary musical reference in six paragraphs on art and morality there, pop pickers!

        Nice to see an artist’s work being taken seriously, but with such a poor balance between consideration of the finished product (as a whole) versus its creation & surrounding context, the reader goes away rather confused. It lacks anything like a definitive conclusion. Having read the text alone, I would be unsure of James’ rating of the record; the ‘8’ score at the foot might as well be a question mark.

    2. I think we’re just looking for different things in music writing. Joel Dear expressed a similar perspective to my own here recently: http://www.godisinthetvzine.co.uk/2016/03/10/opinion-do-we-still-need-album-reviews/

      You could say I’m trying to stand out among oceans of reviews that do pretty much the same thing. I hope you’ll agree the attempt is worthwhile, even if you aren’t keen on my style.

      The conclusion to this review, in summary, is that an album I anticipated might be patronising actually leaves a lot to the imagination. That’s partly why I’m mulling over the album and some of its contexts and sharing observations rather than trying to explain the thing. I wanted to reflect the spirit of the record as best as I could.

      Another reason is that I don’t want to condescend to readers by saying this is good/bad when they can make their own minds up. I personally prefer reading reviews in which the writer shares some of the ideas they enjoyed and, in the best cases, reveals things I might have missed. That’s the way I talk about music with friends; if someone keeps banging on about how good something is, it usually puts me off.

      The problem with this approach is that I’m assuming people will stream or bootleg the album, so I’m complicit in them doing so, but that’s a pretty minor consideration. No amount of explication in reviews will stop people ripping off artists. I find a degree of mystery makes me more likely to take a chance on something new, anyway.

      You’re not the first person to express surprise at a rating I’ve chosen in relation to what I’ve written about an album. A question mark isn’t a bad idea! I don’t want to give the impression that I’m rating anything objectively and, as you don’t know me, there’s no reason to trust whether I think it’s good.

      My aim is just to relate some of the things that make me want to listen to the album again. Other people can assign their own value judgments to those things.

  2. Yes, it’s true that I want ‘value judgments’ and I want them bad! Don’t judge me (boom boom). But seriously, I do ‘want to trust whether you think it’s good’ or not. In my view, that’s why you’re there and, when I was writing, I liked to think I rarely shirked on that front. But then I don’t think I have your insight; the ‘inverted artisan Big Brother’ experiment hadn’t occurred to me as such, and made me smile. A couple more reads of the piece also saw me finding more dry humour in the cracks than I initially recalled – all good stuff.
    But if album reviews are – arguably – now pointless and it’s all wanking in the wind, I’d say give it your best crack in analysing both context *and* product, with the same fine level of consideration and eye for a good angle. It doesn’t make it a shallow experience, it adds colour and makes it accessible. And remember – not everyone will be listening online.

    Trust me: As someone once said, I may not be Jesus, but I have the same initials.

    Keep up the good, oh-innit-just-so-infuriatin’-Mavis work,

  3. Haha! I didn’t mean to judge, the more variety in approaches to writing there are the less boring it is. Regarding balance, to be honest, I hadn’t realised it’s nearly 50:50 background and actual review until you pointed it out. My proofreading may have been a little too detail-focused. I actually wrote more than my word count just about the background and the recording project, and liked it too much to cut it all. I suppose, without being aware of it at the time, I just couldn’t think of a more concise way to build tension around my expectations for the album and then doubt it, as a set up for the contrasting mystery.

    I worry a little that my humour is more arid than merely dry these days – I’m glad things do reveal themselves over time rather than cowering in hunger. I do worry that I’m being inaccessible sometimes. Possibly my live reviews are more balanced, as I write more immediately and therefore with more of a ‘consumer guide’ angle.

    I’ll happily take the advice of someone who stays at home and does the dishes – that’s where I first got into that album. Also, thanks! For reading, and for caring enough to give considered feedback.

  4. James’ review may not tell us what the record sounds like, but at the same time he really makes me want to hear it (OK I’ve already heard it, many times, but you get my point). That’s much more valuable, and a more difficult trick to pull off, than simply saying “This one sounds like X…the next one sounds like Y…” and so on.

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