Shot as a city-spanning composite portrait of Washington D.C., PJ Harvey’s recent video for “The Community of Hope,” has since come under fire from local residents and social activists alike, both for ignoring the intricacies of local politics and a more general lack of oversight. The short film includes the voices and faces of the local Union Temple Baptist Church choir, despite its creators having failed to secure adequate authorization to do so. Normally this kind of sideshow would have little to do with the content of an actual album, but in the case of The Hope Six Demolition Project, what might have been an unfortunate footnote ends up connecting directly with issues already inherent in the work itself.
Continuing the politically focused, free-associative inquisition on place and setting of 2011’s Let England Shake, Harvey expands to a global spotlight, probing into all varieties of economic and military conflict zones, hoping to chart the psychological landscape of these fractured places the same way she did for the land of her birth. Yet for all the versatility and intelligence exhibited on this rich, complicated album, Harvey repeatedly strays into questionable creative territory, verging on a sort of cynical poverty tourism that says less about its subject than its creator.
Harvey has described Let England Shake as her first political work, but the album, one of her finest, was less a work of straightforward civic inquiry than a multi-tonal consideration of how the burden of empire shapes life back at home. It represented a decidedly risky creative move, speaking for the entire past and present of her country via a series of widely spanning, highly allusive, variously voiced sketches. But the album operated in such a half-cocked realm of storybook fantasy that its flights of fancy could never be interpreted as overtly contentious statements on their own. It was the insidious way that fantasy hinted at a horrible history neatly paralleling our own troubled present, a reflective Victoriana of workhouses and tanneries, corpse-strewn battlefields and colonial massacres, that gave Let England Shake such weight and substance.
The Hope Six Demolition Project, on the other hand, is a wholly contemporary and investigative effort, surveying one fresh warzone after another. Its title is drawn from a mid-’90s HUD initiative intended to turn crumbling public housing projects into modern new developments, which many critics feel has only succeeded in further marginalizing low-income residents, converting the choicest land into profitable gentrification sites. Confronting this legacy, Harvey’s pitch-black lyrics pick over the rough surfaces of places like Kosovo or Afghanistan, in which scenes of decay belie the supposedly benevolent influence of American democracy. Where Let England Shake was an album about how the past remains present, this one is focused on the more immediate wreckage that political action and inaction themselves leave behind, whether regarding domestic housing crises or foreign bombing campaigns.
The album thus stands out as a network of echoes and reverberations, the parallels to Harvey’s previous work often coming via small moments, like the offhand connection between a firmly British reference point (the memorable sample of Niney the Observer’s “Blood and Fire,” on the previous album’s “Written on the Forehead”) and the distinctly American character of a modern standard like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” interpolated here on “The Ministry of Social Affairs.” Stylistically, The Hope Six Demolition Project attempts to function as both a sequel and a bookend companion piece, marked by a similarly stygian stew of minor-key songs that undergird Harvey’s high-register vocals with husky male accompaniment, shuddering bass rumbles and throaty sax bellows. The focus therefore shifts from pastoral to urban, with tales of rot and waste and the humans living among such detritus, as music hall ballads and choral interludes give way to the heavy, thudding industrial rock of Harvey’s first few albums.
In keeping with this jackhammer approach to political analysis, the words return to the sensual, reactionary mode of those early works, rather than the archly constructed verse of Let England Shake. The Hope Six Demolition Project’s prevailing mode, in which Harvey tries to distill frontlines lyrical reportage into searing doom-and-gloom sing-alongs, often leads to dubious results. This is all in evidence on that controversial opening track: Written as a stream-of-consciousness series of quick impressions, in a voice that could belong either to a first-time observer or a local offering an impromptu tour of the neighborhood, the words are glib and brusque, describing the “school that just looks like a shithole” and proclaiming that “This is just drug town/Just zombies, but that’s just life.” Other songs express a similar fatalistic gruffness, as scrubby travelogues like “The Ministry of Defence,” “River Anacostia,” and “The Orange Monkey” convey less about the places described than the narrator’s growing exhaustion at seeing the same scenes replayed all around the world.
The cumulative portrait of a world continually broken by the bait-and-switch policies of grasping global powers—the iron fist flexing inside the velvet glove—is convincingly rendered, but not especially illuminating. Shoehorning a series of complex geopolitical scenarios into impressionistic sketches, Harvey revels in the miasma of briefly glimpsed misery, but purposefully restricts the specific character of these situations. Still, despite this central quandary, she remains a generally irresistible presence. Her slinky, rough-hewn vocals turn a song like the “Community of Hope,” which could have easily become a plainly offensive misstep, into something at least approaching empathetic, her wide emotional range keeping the song vivid and alive. This amorphous vocal presence, her lyrical acuity and ear for instrumentation remain essential throughout, assuring that, despite its faults, The Hope Six Demolition Project is still a bountiful album loaded with complex songs and equivalently intricate ideas.
The fact that those ideas often gloss over issues rather than explore them could, in a generous reading, be considered an intentional design. Having catalogued an album’s worth of abject poverty, Harvey solidifies her outsider viewpoint on the closing “Dollar, Dollar,” a song about the emotional encumbrance of hard currency that imagines an interaction between a beggar child and a detached narrator, stuck in her car amid a traffic jam. Here the lyrics effectively illustrate the uneasy, unbreachable gulf between privilege and deprivation, in a way that conveys distance, but also turns that distance into something itself fetishized, the child crushed down into a flatly symbolic figure of dispossession and suffering. The songs on The Hope Six Demolition Project all sit in a similar remove, in a calculated pose that feels half premeditated, half a failure of the project: Striving to offer the musical equivalent of photographic war reportage, they end up saying more about the notion of experiencing poverty as an uncomfortable abstraction than any active engagement with the topic at hand.