It's been five years since PJ Harvey turned her gaze on the often ugly history of her home country on the striking, folk-influenced Let England Shake. In the period that gave birth to her latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, she has been busy, traveling through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. with photographer Seamus Murphy. These travels resulted in the release of a book of poetry and photography The Hollow of the Hand. That same journey, particularly what Harvey and Murphy saw in Washington D.C., also inspired the restless and sinewy Hope Six.
The album's title and first track "The Community of Hope" refer to HOPE VI, a scheme of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development that aimed to rectify the disrepair of the country's worst housing developments. Of course, in this case Harvey deploys the word "hope" with an ironic twist - she sees the poorest people ousted from their homes by gentrification as the new developments become more than they can afford. In an extended coda Harvey sings "They're gonna put a Walmart here," like a mantra of defeat.
But despite the energy of the record, which sticks to a bluesy rock sound coloured with droning and bleating horns, it feels as if there's something lost. Harvey never tells us why it's such a tragedy that "They're gonna put a Walmart here." This record's recording was part of an art installation where viewers could watch through one-way mirrors as Harvey and producers Flood and John Parish, as well as regular collaborators like Australian Mick Harvey, worked on the album. There's a sense of disconnect that seems symptomatic of that isolated recording environment, tucked away in Somerset House in London, far from the things Harvey is actually singing about.
Hope Six is peppered with tracks in which Harvey, normally a fiery and magnetic presence on record, is lost almost completely. Tracks like the plodding "Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln" and the painfully obvious "The Ministry of Social Affairs" (including a clumsily utilised sample of Howlin' Wolf singing "money, honey") feel less like PJ Harvey songs and more like second-hand recitations. In these settings, the admittedly intriguing bluesy sound of the record seems empty and impotent.
When the power that Harvey is known for actually does shine through, the results are astonishing. "A Line in the Sand," sinisterly combines, dark, echoing production with Harvey's high, siren-like voice and it immediately grabs the listener's attention. The closing two songs, "The Wheel" and "Dollar, Dollar" are polar opposites, but complementary. The pounding former track actually succeeds in sounding urgent and vital, with Harvey's rounded English vowels cutting through the mix, and the album closer uses field recordings and a delicate soundscape of percussion, sax and organ as a bed for a performance that actually does convey the tentative hope undercut by the album's opening.
Harvey has been accused of being a "poverty tourist," simply reporting what she sees from a comfortable life. Whether that's true - whether Harvey should be a saviour and not just a messenger - is up to debate, but what's certain is that The Hope Six Demolition Project doesn't rise to the standard that Harvey has set for herself over her long and varied career. She should be commended for tackling tricky subjects, even if the results aren't as new or compelling as we've come to expect from her.
The Hope Six Demolition Project is out on CD, vinyl and digital formats from today.