You have to feel for the bass clarinet. In amongst all of the talk of passive poverty tourism and blurred narrative voices, little time has been spent debating the power of this humble instrument at several stirring moments on PJ Harvey’s ninth studio album. It shifts into gear towards the end of ‘A Line In The Sand’ rather magically and it provides a frankly more straightforward source of pleasure than some of the high profile lyrics.
So much comes down to italics, it transpires. It’s hard to imagine there’s a music fan alive who doesn’t already know at least two things about ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’: firstly, that it was recorded in front of paying crowds at Somerset House as part of an art installation and, secondly, that politicians in Ward 7 of Washington DC were none too happy with some of the phrases describing their locale. The nature of its creation does offer some insight when reflecting on how the album works as a whole. Gazing over the lyric sheet, occasional lines here and whole verses there are italicised, appearing to denote the use of different voices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most controversial words – “The school looks like a shit hole – does that look like a nice place?” a much-discussed example – are not Harvey’s. The notion of simply observing and presenting that runs through these lines is arguably in keeping with a project that itself was presented for observation in its earlier stages.
Whatever your feelings around the words, and they are certainly a little clunky at times, this is a musically rich collection that is partly a logical step on from the rattle of 2011’s beautiful ‘Let England Shake’ and also as melodic a rock record as Harvey has released in some time. ‘Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln’ is curiously catchy for a track with so unwieldy a title. ‘River Anacostia’ emerges, after a delicately soulful prelude of humming, with a twitchy keyboard refrain and the curiously unsettling sound of the variophon, an electronic wind instrument. ‘The Ministry Of Social Affairs’ possesses a shuffling processional percussive core out of which ascends some pretty righteous saxophone, initially lyrical but quickly enraged. It’s a startling moment on an album that’s already some distance from unremarkable.
Early taster track ‘The Wheel’ makes perfect sense in this company, a thunderous rhythm section at work while Harvey juxtaposes images of playing children with details of the overlooked deaths of their peers. At times, the strident music seems ill-suited to the unflinching imagery of many of the lyrics, although maybe raucous, even a little ugly, rock music is exactly the vehicle for these observations. Whatever opinions have been formed around this record, whether already acquainted or not, it’s worth allowing it some space to breathe. Although not commenting on the context publicly makes it all the more interesting, giving it a chance without looking too closely for meaning works in its favour.
Harvey’s time in Kosovo, Afghanistan and the aforementioned deprived corners of Washington has inspired numerous projects across a variety of media. Is she obliged to make sense of scenes that have been witnessed personally because of her status as an artist, or is this just something audiences expect as a result of the high regard in which she is held? The symbiotic dirt of the instrumentation and subject matter works as an expression of an experience. The liberal use of saxophone, jagged guitar and, yes, even that bass clarinet, shape the sensory palette for ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. It’s uncomfortable and at times awkward, but maybe that’s the point.
Words: Gareth James
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