The work of PJ Harvey
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The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016)

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 back.

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 thousands did.

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.

She’s 46.


Non-album tracks, 2016-17

The 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. Released in 2017, 'A Dog Called Money' and 'I'll Be Waiting' are both slight, insidiously haunting songs, the latter apparently in the voice of a child witness to massacre vowing, incongruously and terrifyingly, revenge.

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, some of which were already on the album but including others 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. 'Pity for the Old Road' and 'Where is our City?' make up that particular set. To this can be added 'Homo Sappy Blues', a song which was performed twice in the run-up to the album's recording but which collapsed into unusability during the recording itself!

'The Camp' belongs in a different category - not an out-take from the album, but a 2017 collaboration with Egyptian-born protest singer Ramy Essam, sold in support of a charity working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It keeps up the overall theme of observation and reportage, and although it sounds a bit like three songs bolted together, the sentiment carries it.

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 the same vein, she worked with film composer Harry Escott on a haunting minor-key version of the folk song 'An Acre of Land' for Clio Barnard's movie Dark River: the track was released in 2018.

Another release in 2017 came from Ted Parsons, former drummer with New York techno-metal band Teledubgnosis, who put out three tracks Harvey had apparently recorded with the band in about 1998-9; those are considered on the Is This Desire? page.