Thursday, April 28, 2016

album review: 'the hope six demolition project' by pj harvey

It's gotten to the point of cliche that I open reviews from long-respected, critically acclaimed artists I've never covered before with the assertion that it's hard to talk about legends. And yet the more I've thought about this assertion, the less it makes any sense: presuming, of course, that I'm respectful and do my homework, it shouldn't be any more or less difficult to talk about these acts. 

And on some level, I wouldn't call relistening through a discography work, especially when it's as good as PJ Harvey's is. Most well-known for a series of absolutely killer albums in the 90s and affiliated with Nick Cave - there's a lot of overlap in touring personnel and producers - English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey has always been one of those artists for me where the critically acclaimed discography has been a little daunting to tackle in full. But over the course of the past few weeks I've listened through every single project and found a ton to like: a voice that can span delicate coos to full-throated howls; compositions that twist melodies and grooves in intricate ways that still manage to be catchy as hell; production that preserves a ton of brittle, razor-edged texture that adds to the intimacy and intensifies the rawness; and songwriting that tends to be tricky to decode, but often reveals vivid storytelling with an emotive core that may seem abstract at points but no less powerful. 

Now in terms of her recorded output, many would agree that her alternative rock side in the early-to-mid 90s was her best work - with the bid for mainstream appeal on Stories From The City, Stories from the Sea signalling the end. The next several years would have her dipping back into explosive rawness on Uh Huh Her in 2004 and a stab at gothic pianos on White Chalk in 2007, but where things really kicked back into gear came in 2011 with Let England Shake, pulling in a broader musical palette of autoharp, zither, horns, and her highest vocal register yet to juxtapose against some shocking and graphic lyrics delving into the violence of war. It's a genuinely unsettling record - especially considering how damn catchy it was - and it reflected one of the first times PJ Harvey had directly delved into political material - and it wouldn't be the last. In 2015 she recorded her newest record live through one way glass in an exhibit open to the public, and with the title of The Hope Six Demolition Project, it was clear she was turning her target to the modern era and to the United States at the very least. So, how did that turn out?

Here's the thing: this is a record that the more I thought about it, the more I both liked and disliked it. On the surface the contemporary politics of the record had good intentions and seemed to follow a solid throughline, but digging into the details you encounter a lot of places where the nuance is strangely missing, showing a lack of self-awareness that made much of the social commentary clunky at best and seriously off-colour at worst. But go deeper and you realize that might be the point, a subversion of this sort of voyeuristic social commentary that was directly mirrored in the way the album was constructed in the first place. All of this means that The Hope Six Demolition Project has layers, but I'm not certain they add up to nearly as much as they imply, which definitely makes this a frustrating listen - and unfortunately, not one of PJ Harvey's best works, at least not in the upper tier.

So before we start delving into the layers on this record, I feel it's necessary lay some groundwork regarding the titular project. HOPE VI was a project put together by the United States government in order to replace substandard public housing with mixed income developments. And yet the program has been something of a mess, rife with prioritization of private firms over public development, the cities utilizing it as a method to raise property values and taxes instead of the actual state of the housing projects, and worst yet no one-to-one replacement policy, which means that in the process of redevelopment, there's no guarantee that poorer families won't be displaced permanently, or forced out by higher rent in the gentrified area they can't afford. Yet in reality, while PJ Harvey does take aim at this topic, her focus is broader and speaks to endemic poverty and destabilized communities on a larger level, with a specific focus on Kosovo and Afghanistan. And it's about this time for me to re-establish my guidelines for good political art, the 3 P's: power, precision, and populism. In other words, the best politically-themed art can strike real impact, can understand its targets and approach the situation with nuance, and simultaneously can speak to a human perspective larger than oneself. The best art in this vein hits all three P's, but you can get away with two if the music is strong enough.

But is it? This record shares a fair bit in common with Let England Shake in its greater usage of horns to balance against the rattling guitars, but this time around instead of cultivating more of an airy vibrancy to balance against the content, the brass is much thicker and heavier, often mixing with the sharper snares to create more of an old school big band vibe - which does make a certain amount sense, given the touches of Americana that run throughout this record. But this choice means that much of the 'danger' of this record in the more ragged, rough-edged guitars that sizzle and spark feels sucked back, almost feeling a little too garish and slick to really encapsulate the danger and unspoken urgency in the content. There are a few points that get close: the staccato riffing of 'The Ministry Of Defense'; the faded rattle of 'A Line In The Sand' with the bouncy horns and drum groove that feeds into an oddly captivating hook with PJ Harvey stepping into the highest reaches of her range; the bluesy minimalism of 'River Anacostia' that does build some potent smoked out swell; the textured percussion that builds into a solid ascension on 'The Orange Monkey'; and the horns and handclaps driving the squonking melody on 'The Wheel'. But these horns also have their cringe-worthy moments, like on 'Near The Memorials Of Vietnam And Lincoln' where I really dug the subtle piano touch before that godawful compressed horn feed blared over the rest of the verse. Or take the extended outro on 'The Ministry Of Social Affairs' - I appreciate the ragged nature of the soloing, but without a lot of structure it feels garish and overstated, not playing to any of the song's strengths or grooves. But then again, considering how overmixed and blended so much of this album feels, it's rare when one instrumental element can actually stand out - outside of the horns, of course.

And sure, of course PJ Harvey's vocals sound good - I've accepted the fact she's not going to be as raw as she was in the past, and for what this record is trying to do, I can mostly appreciate her playing much of this material straight. What gets distracting is how often she's overtaken by her male backing chorus or the instrumentation itself - and sure, it can lead to a choral effect that can work for the populism - anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba did much of the same thing in their thirty year history, a comparison that between the catchy hooks, horns, and political strokes seems apropos. But where things get dicey in that comparison comes in the content and its presentation - PJ Harvey has always been a writer with a knack for creating vivid pictures with words, and that's just as true here. The abandoned buildings on 'The Ministry Of Defense', the polluted waters of 'River Anacostia', and in perhaps the most jarring moment of poor taste on 'Medicinals', a homeless Native American woman drinking booze and wearing a Washington Redskins cap. Now I get the image and I get the message of desperate poverty underneath it, but by playing to the broadest possible caricature and by rarely ever placing herself in the frame, it rings as the sort of shock tactic that you'd think PJ Harvey would be above. And this problem, this 'poverty tourism' as some critics have coined it, is consistent across the majority of the record, almost to the point where you'd argue it's intentional. And I would argue PJ Harvey does indeed know that, and that's when the theme of this record seems to shift: less political messaging and more about how that political message is presented. There are running metaphors of distance on tracks like 'A Line In The Sand' or the taunting child on 'Near The Memorials Of Vietnam and Lincoln' or the bankers sitting by their locked glass cabinets on 'The Ministry Of Social Affairs' or the faded photographs of tragedies on 'The Wheel'. Hell, on the final song 'Dollar Dollar' PJ Harvey is approached by a child in Afghanistan asking for a dollar and separated only by the glass in her car, she's left speechless - for someone who has privilege to encounter extreme poverty, it leaves them paralyzed, the evocative power of that stark moment so outside their own experience. And if you go even further to how PJ Harvey made this project - behind one way glass, where everyone could see her and not the other way around - tourism to the artistic process, but never the direct connection.

Now there are definitely issues with this thesis - for one, if PJ Harvey wanted to make a point about poverty tourism and the mental barricades we build to ignore the disenfranchisement of others, maybe it would have been better if she didn't rely on blatant stereotypes to make that point, even if they are well painted. But the larger issue comes in presentation, because with the lack of greater texture in the instrumentation, she misses the opportunity for a sharper edge to her message, and surrounding her voice amidst a crowd of backing vocals is a further distancing effect from the audience to whom she's targeting - kind of ironic, given the themes. This hurts both the precision and populism of her political statements, and the fact that she's co-opting real geopolitical nightmares to make a point about messaging feels a little cheap to me. And while I would never ask PJ Harvey to provide solutions to these problems - for her theme to work, awareness is sufficient - but I do feel this album's theme can run thin. It makes a point about the shock to the system, but there's no progression beyond it - just stasis from behind the glass. So in short... again, I'm conflicted on this record. I appreciate the thematic layers and most of the execution clicks, but a lot of the music itself leaves me cold. At least when Chumbawamba blended their politics with hook-driven tracks, they had a stronger sense of wry humour and populism, where this record is more austere, more focused on its message and catchy almost by accident. As such, for me I'm feeling a light 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan of PJ Harvey, but frankly she's done far better. I think this album could have worked if it took the chance to get more personal - as it is, we have stark moments, but many are blurry, faded, and locked in glass cases.

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