I’VE OFTEN RAILED against the lack of political engagement in 21st century song. To me, if feels like the new romantic movement killed off caring in the mid-‘80s. Hair metal didn’t give a fuck about anything except flash everything and girls and drugs, house music didn’t give a fuck about anything except clubbing, girls and boys and drugs, and grunge only cared about how utterly, myopically miserable the singer was. U2 made noises about caring, then bankrupted Irelend. Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.
We’ve now reached a point where someone is considered a serious songwriter if they sing about a bad bitch with a fat ass, or how wet they get when some tattooed Adonis looks deep in their eyes. The kind of graft that went into even the slightest Joni Mitchell lyric seems to be beyond the hipster generation. And even when a lyric is quietly masterful, it seldom means much.
PJ Harvey has always been something of an exception to the status quo, and while her body of work is less than that of sustained genius, at least it has constantly evolved and kicked up new turf. Personally, I’ve got a soft wet spot for PJ Harvey, because she’s a strong woman who often sings in a high voice, but a voice that’s capable of emotion and vulnerability, not a pathetic, winsome high voice like those J and K-pop girlies. There’s a lot more to love about PJ Harvey than that, of course, but this isn’t an essay on all the things I love about PJ Harvey, after all.
The trouble is, there’s something that doesn’t sit quite right about The Hope Six Demolition Project. It’s not a terrible album, and thankfully, it doesn’t preach, but it makes me feel a little queasy. I think it’s because she’s willfully turned a compassionate quest into an art project. That’s not wrong in itself, and I can’t fault her urge to get out in the world to see for herself the travesty of war-torn cities, dispossessed refugees and the poverty-stricken. We live in one of the worst times in modern history for those who are unlucky enough to be pawns of world politics (while the rest of us live in comparative luxury without realising the big bad wolf could blow our house of cards over at any time) and we should expect some response from our artists.
It’s what she chose to do after travelling to world hot spots, and during the album sessions, that I think has blighted the whole project. It was someone’s idea to have the album recorded in sessions between January and February 2015, and let people pay to view the ongoing process. In effect, you could call it a live exhibition or a silly fishbowl project. I’m all in favour of new and novel ways to record albums, but the result feels self-conscious and half-arsed.
Even though it sounds like a Socialist Workers’ Party (circa 1956) idea of a rousing knees-up, lead track ‘The Community Of Hope’ does have a certain charm. In fact, it reminded me instantly of early, punky Patti Smith had she channeled Hairspray-era rock’n’roll into a sing-along anthem.
Sadly though, it’s one of the few really catchy numbers. While the music shows the influence of everything from nostalgic rock’n’roll to punk to blues and chain-gang hollering – with a little discordant ‘alternative rock’ thrown in for good measure – the methodology is consistent. PJ Harvey gets her male co-conspirators to offer themselves as a male chorus, which lends the endeavor a shambling, sing-along vibe that ultimately jars.
Easily the best thing about The Hope Six Demolition Project is the bass clarinet (and occasionally baritone sax) that honks away on several tunes (‘A Line In The Sand’, ‘Chain Of Keys’, ‘The Wheel’), but sometimes it just feels lazy, like they’ve turned up for a session and made a song up on the spot so the ‘exhibition’ runs smoothly. ‘Watch PJ make art about injustice,’ etc. And their use of sampled sound fragments, and even Linton Kwesi Johnson’s voice, feels arbitrary.
On ‘The Orange Monkey’, she seems to be explaining the origins of this vary project. This monkey (dreamt?) told her that “To understand, you must travel back in time/I took a plane to a foreign land/And said, ‘I’ll write down what I find…’” Fair enough, at least she’s brave enough to go places, see what’s going down, but in the end, it’s really just like watching TV: a parade of depressing injustice, but what to do about it?
Perhaps I’m being unkind. There are genuinely haunting moments, like on ‘The Wheel’, about missing and slaughtered children, and remnants found in the desert: “A faded face/The trace of an ear.” But I just wanted it to be so much better. We need some well-aimed volleys of compassionate, intellect-driven critique to counter the sheer madness going on in the world. GARY STEEL
Music = 3/5
Sound = 2.5/5
[Note: Gary Steel reserves the right to reappraise and alter his star ratings up or down at any time].