PJ Harvey Stares Through the Glass at Poverty on ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’

There’s been a lot of confusion as to the momentary and somewhat misinterpreted notes of voyeurism and reductiveness woven in to The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey’s newest album about global poverty in war-torn (Afghanistan, Kosovo) or war-mongering (the US) countries. Throughout the album you’ll find intentionally meaningless factoids (the repetition of a statistic — 28,000 — that a voice keeps asserting they recall hearing) and Harvey’s depictions of self-aware removal from her subjects. That likely deliberate confusion makes for a lyrically uneven album that sounds spectacular, where the words aren’t quite as compellingly bolstered by the emotionality (or strategic withholding of it) of the dynamically arranged and sung music as Harvey’s tremendous body of work so often has been.

Harvey travelled in order to be able to document poverty through personal accounts, but she came back largely with what the internet could have told you anyway. Given the subject matter and story behind the album (Harvey’s desire to not, as she did with Let England Shake, gather info from secondary sources, but rather “smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people”), it’s an interesting, if very uneasy, conclusion to reach. And if anything, on Hope Six, Harvey presents an honest portrait of how people absorb global tragedies from behind the glass of a screen, a camera lens, a car, divides of class and perceptions of race, and facing the inevitability of meeting one’s own personal limitations of understanding. This is all relayed in an album made under the often transformative pressures of observation through another literal glass — it was recorded in a gallery in front of the public, behind a glass wall. In Let England Shake — Harvey’s World War I allegory — the musician got chillingly deep inside the minds and experiences of soldiers from a hundred years in the past: Hope Six, fascinatingly, is more about deductions from the surfaces of people living in the present. Is Harvey herself making those deductions, or is she proving a tapestry of voices that might?

The best example of this comes from the poem that inspired the vastly misunderstood song “The Community of Hope,” — one of the album’s strongest tracks, yet also one of its most scorned. The majority of the lyrics of the album come directly from The Hollow of the Hand, PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy’s collaborative book of writing and photography that documented their stays in Kosovo, Washington D.C. and Afghanistan. One of the most straightforward poems in the book is “Sight-Seeing, South of the River,” for its demonstration of everything mentioned above. Unlike most of the rest of the book, which is more directly written in formal, albeit fragmentary, and more figuratively opaque observations set to verse, this seeming (it’s not attributed) found poem comes in the form of a conversational paragraph, with all the vocalized tics of a monologue kept intact through what appears to be transcription. The poem is wholly from the point of view of someone — a character, one might assume, or a real person Harvey encountered — giving a detached and somewhat callously insensitive tour of the Ward 7 neighborhood of Washington, D.C., using almost dehumanizing language while trying to emphasize the poor conditions of its residents. The poem exists as a marker of certain signifiers of America’s racialized poverty, but also more as a documentation of an outsider’s distanced pity:

Here’s the I-HOP — the one sit-down restaurant in Ward 7. Nice. Okay, this is just drug town. Just zombies. Lotsa wig shops, lotsa baby-mamas as they call ’em… Here’s the M.L.K. Deli, here’s God’s Deliverance Centre. Okay, this is the border of Seven and Eight. Here’s the Community of Hope. They’re gonna put a Walmart Here.

“Sight-Seeing, South of the River” is deceptively complex — and very clearly, from the diction and the italics — not meant to be seen as an artist’s objective assessment of a place, not even as Harvey’s own words at all. Interestingly, when the song “Community of Hope” emerged off The Hope Six Demolition Project, it was pretty quickly condemned via a seeming misinterpretation of intention — first by local politicians with clear and understandable stakes in undercutting any scathing description of a D.C. neighborhood, and then by the actual organization Community of Hope, who replied to the song, “We’ve found our neighbors struggling with drugs aren’t zombies – they are living, breathing, feeling humans.” Last, it was scolded by writers aping those initial condemnations without questioning the origins of the lyrics, and inflating the original controversy — a few quotes from politicians in the DCist and the Community of hope — to a “firestorm.” The connection was not made back to the poem.

Even after Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman came out and pretty much emphasized that the whole song’s content was taken from a tour he’d given Harvey (whether or not the words from the poem are taken verbatim is another story), people were still interpreting the song as Harvey’s own unmediated thesis. Others, like Stereogum writer Tom Breihan, understood it as a series of quotes, but used that as an accusation of laziness — “Harvey is just singing lines — including the cathartic ‘They’re gonna build a Wal-Mart here’ coda — that she heard Schwartzman say,” rather than the exact point. The online speculation about this song seemed to be having just as much of a hard time getting to its core — tapping only against its surface — as the narrator of the song does to the D.C. neighborhood that’s its subject.

This is not a song just about a neighborhood; by taking a seemingly transcribed or character-specific bit of text, it’s a candid portrait of how limited an outsider’s perception of a neighborhood can be. It’s a catchy song whose uncomfortable lyrics alternate between gross generalization, casual hearsay and truly biting juxtaposition. Here, the album begins, looking out of a car window, with Harvey’s view dictated, it seems, entirely by a member of the press, who’d later write about the experience online. There are two meanings to looking out through a glass here: Harvey’s trip starts here in a car, and ends in one as well, as on the last track, “Dollar Dollar.” But here, we’re also seemingly being introduced to the place by the voice of the press — a voice who might color our understanding of a place from behind a computer screen.

While self awarely never achieving the insider perspective it seeks (even on the stunning, folky “A Line in the Sand,” the story is being told from a worker at a refugee camp rather than a refugee) and instead relying on an assessment of signifiers, the album is able to draw many intriguing geopolitical connections between what can be surmised from all its lines about blighted surfaces. (Which, at times, in their bounty, themselves sound just as much like the deductions of someone skimming through the Lens blog or who just heard Tracy Jordan’s monologic exaggeration of his impoverished childhood in 30 Rock — “I slept on an old dog bed stuffed with wigs! I watched a prostitute stab a clown! Our basketball hoop was a rib cage – a rib cage!”)

“Community of Hope” drew on America’s massive military funding and lacking social funding, while noting, through the casual juxtaposition of a neighborhood tour, the detritus of the flawed Hope VI housing initiative alongside a revamped Homeland Security Base. Meanwhile, on the disconcertingly peppy and childlike “Near the Memorials of Vietnam and England” Harvey sings about a little boy who throws fake birdseed towards starlings so they’ll jump, a clear metaphor for the government’s paltry, phantom attempts to uplift its poor. This song is followed immediately by “Medicinals” — a call and response between Harvey and medicinal plants native to D.C. — and ends in the narrator seeing a Native American woman in a wheelchair drinking “a new painkiller for the native people”; the juxtaposition of these two songs brings to mind the hollowed shell of Obamacare that Congress ultimately accepted.

This last bit underscores the album’s tendency to treat people as symbols, thereby focusing solely on deductions from the physical. In the military march-evocative “Chain of Keys,” Harvey soldiers through the unraveling of the symbol of a Kosovar woman’s keychain holding 15 keys, all leading to emptied, crumbling houses. “Imagine what her eyes have seen/ We ask but she won’t let us in,” Harvey explains, in another example of her expression of a person left interpreting symbols of tragedy rather than real accounts — despite being there in the flesh. Similarly, on the raucous “The Wheel” — where livid saxophones, a staple on the album, fill in for the venom Harvey’s guitar could spew on earlier albums — after every image of children spinning into the background on a carnival wheel, PJ Harvey’s band members (Mick Harvey and John Parish) intone with a chorus of what seems like that hearsay statistic — “I heard it was 28,000.” Finally, on “Dollar Dollar,” Harvey finishes the album with a return to gazing through the privilege of a car window, this time at a young beggar in Afghanistan:

His voice says dollar dollar
I turn to you to ask
For something we could offer
Three lines of traffic past
We pull away so fast

Harvey makes the begging words “Dollar, Dollar” her chorus, her voice layered atop itself and it with unsettling, cutesy remove. A blanket of mellotron creates the sense of comfortably and uselessly floating through something; meanwhile, blares of saxophone intensify. Ultimately, Harvey — the privileged visitor — is gone at the end of the song, but the saxophone, now furious, is what’s left.

It’s telling that after a cycle of songs of seeming anger and oscillations between earnestness and remove, this last song, like the first, (“Community of Hope”) is especially aware of its detachment. It sums up the familiar experience of the futility of reading, say, an article about strife, sympathizing from afar, then simply moving on into the rest of the day.

PJ Harvey knows how to make an impeccable, smotheringly cohesive album: her last two LPs, White Chalk and Let England Shake, were cohered by such singular and deliberately constrained sounds as to be both brilliant and relentless (and White Chalk was only 30 minutes long). When she’s made more uneven albums, that’s seemed to be part of the point: Uh Huh Her, the weakest link in her past discography (and still a very good album), was a transitional record of scraps of who she once was as an artist and where she was going; its hugely indicative cover a polaroid selfie with a vastly uncertain expression, taken from out of a car window:

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If that album was a rare instance of Harvey navigating the awkward positioning of trying to look at her own work through a lens, her new LP, the Hope Six Demolition Project, sees the artist candidly displaying the struggle of trying to do the same with experiences that are wholly external to her own, just as aware of the lenses we point outward as inward, explicitly exposing all the clumsiness the process of so doing can entail. It’s easy to get frustrated by the shortcomings and reductions of this sonically stunning album; but the album’s equally frustrated with itself.