In a series of short films, a young
woman in a black coat picks through a ruined building, gazing through its empty
doorways. The same woman occupies the back seat of a car, watching a run-down
cityscape go past. Again, she sits on a rusting bit of iron in a mountain
valley scattered appallingly with burned-out tanks. Actually, she’s not that
young at all: it’s her unusual physique that makes her appear more like a lost
teenager than the middle-aged woman she is. She is the witness to the wreckage
of places and lives.
Before Hope Six is anything else, it’s an unprecedented act of moral
engagement. It would be easy enough for an artist to compose a text about the
disastrous effects of political decision-making from the safe distance of home,
but for Harvey that would have been impertinent: she had to find out the truth,
not just guess at it. She found photojournalist Seamus Murphy and travelled
with him to troubled places, talking and taking notes. This meant risk.
Firstly, there’s the pain that engagement exposes you to: this stuff isn’t
make-believe. Murphy told an interviewer, ‘she’s a musician, not a journalist.
She wasn’t used to people crying when she asked them questions.’ She finds
bones in an empty building, is faced with need and silence, realises she can’t
help. Secondly, she runs the risk of being misunderstood. She knows that for
the music to do its work, it will have to be reticent, multivocal, offer no
solutions: that’s her natural inclination anyway, but this time she will have
to explain nothing. People may react badly, insult her, not just on a musical
level which she’s used to, but deeply, personally. And that’s exactly what
happens when the music is released. They sharpen their political agendas on her
The bluesy Hope Six has a grimier, untidier and more brittle soundscape than
its lush predecessor, over which the planets fortuitously locked into exactly
the right alignment. You get the sense throughout that Harvey has found it
tough going to batter her observations and conversations into musical form, and
to translate lyrically and rhythmically the poems she first wrote them down as:
square pegs are being forced a bit into round holes. She’s choosing, almost
completely, to eschew imagination in favour only of what she’s seen or been
told, and that means rowing against the tide of her own genius. It doesn’t
always work: there are awkward metaphors and obvious juxtapositions. ‘The
Orange Monkey’, composed for Seamus Murphy, is lyrically interesting but
musically underworked, its inclusion (and release as a single) one of her
characteristic acts of generosity.
But where Harvey’s travels furnish
her with an image strong enough, the results have a truly tectonic power. There
is the funeral-procession blare of ‘Chain of Keys’, the piteous, terrifying
descent into horror that is ‘The Ministry of Defence’, the thin, arid sense of
waste of ‘A Line in the Sand’: and all the time the knowledge that this is real. The album is framed by the two
mighty poles of ‘The Community of Hope’ and ‘The Wheel’, shattering twin anthems
of outrage. The first combines cynicism, anger and humanism so closely that you
can barely distinguish them: where is hope in this landscape of shit-hole
schools and zombie drug users, described against such bitterly upbeat music? It’s
in the euphoric, soaring refrain, no matter how the broken promises of politicians
have debased the coinage of the word hope. ‘How you sing a song is as important as the
words’, Harvey believes. ‘The Wheel’, pounding, insistent, places children, as
they always are for her, as the victims of adult failure. ‘Hey, little
children, don’t disappear’, she pleads with the 28,000 vanished infants of former
Yugoslavia, already lost in the turning of the playground wheel, their
photographs ‘fading with the roses’. Central lies the downbeat ‘River
Anacostia’, skilfully refashioning an old spiritual into a Christian meditation
on ruin and redemption in which Jesus comes walking on the polluted water of
the river. Hope persists, even in the poisons and broken trees.
Taking the album to the world,
instead of interviews and press releases, Harvey turned up the volume,
submerging any flaws it may have had. The live performances were emphasised
like never before, the band bigger, the staging more deliberate and dramatic,
and she was triumphantly vindicated. ‘You can’t imagine people chanting
“They’re gonna build a Walmart here” or ‘O near the memorials to Vietnam and
Lincoln” at the summer festivals, can you?’ wrote one critic. But at Roskilde
and Paris, at Bilbao and Athens, at Glastonbury and Eden, that was just what
This work is the most important,
the most radical, the most hazardous thing she’s ever done, perhaps any singer
has ever done. She is no longer just a musician. With Let England Shake, PJ Harvey became a medium; Hope Six makes her a prophet.
Non-album tracks, 2016The Hope
Six bonus track ‘Guilty’ is tremendously strong, driven forward by martial
percussion, but you can see why it didn’t fit onto the album: it's a work of imagination rather than reportage. Harvey took time
out from the summer 2016 tour to appear at a support event for Julian Assange
in Berlin at which she sang the Christian folk song from the Appalachians, ‘I
Wonder as I Wander’, with a sublime purity that had people gasping.
In January 2017 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a drama, On Kosovo Field, written by Fin Kennedy and produced by Nadia Molinari based around Harvey's notes of her trip to Kosovo.
Woven through the broadcasts were demo versions of eight songs, most of
which were already on the album but including some that had never seen
the light of day before. 'Dance On the Mountain' was eventually
released its entirety on the Radio 4 website, a spare piece with a
simple vocal and guitar line and a single piano note punching away,
driven by an uneasy energy ('there's something wrong, something
terrifying'). The others exist only as fragments. 'The Red Road'
ventures towards Balkan folksong, while the beautiful 'Clothes of
Grief' has the feel of English folksong and could have been written at any time over two centuries.