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.