PJ Harvey has a ying yang swing with her albums. For each one she makes that is polished and full bodied, she then retreats back to a murkier, demo like experience where things are a bit more experimental. It doesn’t surprise me after the rounded “Let England Shake”, that this album has a very rough quality to it.
The roughness is brought about by the production. In opener “The Community of Hope” the is a squashed feel to it – like everything is on the same plane and missing all the air and sheen of any happiness. It’s an oppressive feeling that stays throughout the whole album. Stylistically it feels similar to “Let England Shake” but like a demo b-side session, although that would be very unfair to the album to rank it like that. The bursting chugs of guitars and saxophones in “The Ministry of Defence” has a real doomsday quality to it and a mature tautness. Lyrically the album takes a wider political view picking at very specific scenes. The lyrics throughout the album are very literal. The opening track has a line that will become infamous as PJ sings “they’re gonna build a Walmat here!” which of course is not going to solve any world problems in the slightest. That direct approach stays throughout the album.
“A Line in the Sand” has a great mix of saxophones and echoing guitars alongside the rolling drums. It reminds me of kooky 50’s rock at times but it also brings me to my next album observation – it’s like a musical travelling caravan. PJ Harvey’s voice is often backed by her male bandmates that give an olde English quality to it – like a doomed sea shanty. When it’s paired with this type of music, it feels like they are a band of travellers spreading the news of the worlds woes. “Chain of Keys” is one of the best examples as the vocals are written to a call / response style over a slinky Arabian tinged track that’s as militant as it is seductive. “River Anacostia” uses the male voices to fantastic effect too in what’s a very divisive song for me because for the first half, I don’t think PJ is in tune with the music at all and it irks me.
The album switches gears a little for the second half, taking a less sly stance and a more riotous feel instead. “Near the Memorials of Vietnam and Lincoln” is an electro acoustic riot track in waiting. It’s like a 3 minute call to action. It also has a really cool tape warping effect that sounds like a siren. “The Orange Monkey” is a percussive genius with loads of brushes and blocks in use. It’s here where all the vocals push together at their best. You can barely hear Harvey as the group sound like soldiers marching the endless march to war. It’s especially effective that the only vaguely light sounding noise in the track is Harvey’s own voice providing a tiny melody behind the main thrust of music. “Medicinals” uses saxophones for guitars and despite being a short track that revolves around a single riff for the most part, it’s pretty awesome and is really the only time in the album where Harvey feels unrestrained.
“The Ministry of Social Affairs” is an interesting track because she samples a famous guitar loop and then utterly jams over the top of it. I love how the track starts off quite sassy and over time the chords and instruments get more and more discordant and jumbled into a sinister mess. However, for me, nothing tops the single “The Wheel” as it’s the culmination of absolutely everything that came before it. It’s guitar, sax, voice and bang really going for it and telling the world what the fuck is wrong with it without an apology. I think what this song has over the rest is that lyrically she is joining us as an observer and as she sings about 28,000 children disappearing she hasn’t taken a higher view – she’s watching them fade out with us – and that’s quite an interesting dynamic. The closer “Dollar, Dollar” is the sole quiet track on the album. An organ barely adds warmth to the downcast track which ends with a solemn saxophone solo.
“The Hope Six Demolition Project” is vastly political, vastly observatory and warrants several listens before you can really let it sink in. The production will put some off and I must admit, at times I wish there was a little more variety to the soundscape – but to be able to pour oppressive sound into your ears is quite a feat – especially when the message is so clear. Another rough gem from PJ Harvey – although you’ll need to give it time.
Recommended track: The Wheel