P.J. Harvey vs. Humankind

The rocker's The Hope Six Demolition Project tours Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C.—and mostly finds horror.

Maria Mochnacz

The question of whether P.J. Harvey’s new album is a misguided work of poverty tourism would not be worth debating if the music itself were as forgettable as politically minded art can sometimes be. But, alas, the sound of the indie-rock icon’s The Hope Six Demolition Project keeps rattling in my head, whether because of the gothic swells of guitar and horns on “The Ministry of Defence,” the deceptively chipper singalong of “The Community of Hope,” or the steadily climbing vocal melody on “The Orange Monkey.” Harvey’s sound has shifted shapes over her career, but her talent rarely wavers: She sings with a mix of steely remove and gasping rawness, and she conjures arrangements that snuggly envelop listeners before deeply freaking them out. You cannot quite ignore this album, which means you cannot quite ignore what she is saying.

The recording sessions for The Hope Six Demolition Project were held in public in London, and the lyrical inspiration came from Harvey visiting Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C. with the photographer Seamus Murphy. Controversy over the D.C. expedition then framed most of the ensuing discourse about the album. After receiving a tour of the poorest parts of the American capital from an unwitting Washington Post reporter, Harvey wrote the album’s lead-off track “The Community of Hope,” which referred to D.C.’s Ward 7 as “just drug town, just zombies.” The local non-profit that shares the song’s name criticized its lyrics as insensitive, and a former D.C. mayor called the tune “inane.” Blistering reviews portraying Harvey as a privileged exploiter of an underclass have followed.

There are many unanswerable questions about Harvey’s intentions with the album—she’s not doing interviews—but the barest bit of benefit of the doubt would grant that the “zombies” line is not to be taken at face value. It reads, in full, as this: “OK, now this is just drug town, just zombies / But that’s just life.” This is in all likelihood a smart woman trying to sound a bit stupid. The song is not about Ward 7 but rather about someone not from Ward 7 being driven around it searching for, and perhaps not quite finding, understanding. The accompanying video begins in the backseat of the tour guide’s car, and the lyrics very clearly weave in the notion of subjectivity, distance, and miscomprehension. Benning Road, she sings, is “a well-known pathway of death—at least that’s what I’m told.”

Much of the album is, in fact, about what she’s been told. The stupendous and terrifying “The Ministry of Defence” opens with stop-start guitar chords before Harvey enters in a high and unsettled voice; the effect is a bit like Black Sabbath. The ensuing landscape of bombed-out buildings and children who “balanced sticks in human shit” would certainly fit with Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrical preoccupations, and the song climaxes much like T.S. Eliot describing post-war ruins long past: “This is how the world will end.” But amid all the drama, when Harvey mentions banalities like bus depots and soda, a man’s accented spoken words echo her. It’s likely another tour guide.

But his presence doesn’t mean Harvey is simply witnessing and documenting misery and strife. She is aestheticizing those things, as art necessarily does to its subjects. The meta aspects of the album—the open creation process and the references to her own perception—indicate that she is aware that she is doing this, and in fact she wants to make her own responses part of the art. The people and places she sings about, despite Harvey having visited them, are mere surfaces to her, and they shall be surfaces to their listeners. But this should not—and if you want art that engages with the real world at all, cannot—disqualify her from having something to say about complacency, despair, and power.

Laura Snapes at Pitchfork has proposed that after 2011’s Let England Shake explored Harvey’s home country’s history with war, The Hope Six Demolition Project is the sequel that deals with America. This seems correct. In placing desperate parts of Afghanistan and Kosovo next to desperate parts of Washington, D.C., Harvey draws attention to how a prosperous nation’s stated humanitarian goals have gone unmet domestically and abroad. “Medicinals” recounts the herbal plants that once grew where the National Mall is, and closes with a description of a Native American woman in a Redskins hat and wheelchair drinking alcohol. Some listeners have found this undeniably heavy-handed image offensive on the woman’s behalf, but what’s probably more provocative about the song is its attitude toward America’s existence.

Wisely, perhaps, Harvey is not too narrow, too politically pin-downable, in her indictments. Rather than asking whether the United States is a force for good, she asks whether all of civilization is. This happens explicitly over the Tom Waits-inspired gallop of “A Line in the Sand”: “What I’ve seen—yes, it’s changed how I see humankind—I used to think progress was being made, that we could get something right” (on the page it’s wonky, but in the ear it’s pretty). This naked and broad hopelessness is perhaps more typical of death metal than literary rock. Harvey doesn’t totally commit to it, later singing that she reserves some hope for the future even after describing a camp where refugees gnaw on horse hooves for sustenance.

In the context of this flirtation with nihilism, the controversial “The Community of Hope” seems even more complicated. The title and chorus refers to the name of a housing project, and another catchy refrain in the song goes, “They’re gonna put a Walmart here,” which is something Harvey’s guide said. The sarcasm of the presentation, the implication that hope and redevelopment are just Orwellian lies, is partly why the song has triggered backlash. After all, there no doubt is hope in the community she’s singing about, and that Walmart really might help the neighborhood’s lot (though this particular planned megastore never got built). But surely it’s valid to feel suspicion in the light of a history littered with narratives of uplift, improvement, and perseverance told by powerful institutions about the people they’ve helped keep powerless.