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Review: PJ Harvey Can’t Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Skin on ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’

PJ Harvey
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: April 15, 2016
Label: Island

The year is 2013. You’re excited because Brad Paisley‘s about to release the snickeringly titled Wheelhouse, in which the genial, widely respected country singer really challenges his red-state fans. His 2009 single “Welcome to the Future” adopted synths and pro-Obama rhetoric, making note that America had come so far since the KKK’s cross-burning heyday. And then the track list of this new record boasted an LL Cool J duet called “Accidental Racist,” the ballsiest move yet for the rare liberal singer with an unconverted audience to preach to. And then… well, we all know what happened. “Accidental Racist” didn’t end Brad Paisley’s career, but on the evidence of its tepid, tailgater-aimed follow-up Moonshine in the Trunk, his idealism was all but crushed afterward. He no longer felt comfortable wandering out of his depth. And the dread sets in that to many people it’ll be all he’s remembered for.

PJ Harvey is a genius, no use trying to beat around that. She owned the ’90s and invented herself multiple times, with capable personae and incredible music to back each one up. She took blues-punk to feminist and Albini-an extremes. She one-upped the comparatively diaristic fantasies of Liz Phair by demanding that two of history’s leading men, Casanova and Robert DeNiro, bend over for two different prostate-pleasing reasons. She backed them up with riffs, vocals, shivering dynamics galore. Then she purloined U2‘s engineer Flood and took her sound widescreen, industrial, orchestral. She made more convincing trip-hop than Madonna, and better latter-day Patti Smith than actual latter-day Patti Smith. But it is 2016 and she has finally overreached.

The same year that “Accidental Racist” ground Paisley’s bipartisan ambitions to a halt, Harvey released “Shaker Aamer,” one of her greatest songs. Building on the war-casualty meditations of her widely praised 2011 album Let England Shake, she sang plainspokenly about a real-life Guantanamo Bay detainee on a hunger strike. She humanized him, no more, no less; she called him “your friend.” It was a protest song and character study the way they’re meant to be done, in line with Bob Dylan‘s “Hurricane,” laying out the facts for the listener to research themselves. There was every reason to believe that her newest LP, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which drew on her experiences in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C., would be a brilliant match of artistic conquistador and fervent new inspiration.

Except “Shaker Aamer” is her “Welcome to the Future” and its already-infamous opener “The Community of Hope” is her “Accidental Racist.” If we’re to believe the only side we know (and the interview-averse Harvey might not provide another), she lifted words in Project‘s opening gambit directly from the Washington Post reporter who showed her around the troubled parts of D.C. that she makes shallow, pitied observations about, and who allegedly fed Harvey the line meant to demonstrate her right to Joni Mitchell’s throne. “Hope” clearly means to be her “Big Yellow Taxi” by paving paradise to put up a Wal-Mart, but fails to realize that she’s paving it herself by enlisting a choir (depicted in the song’s video as black, which doesn’t help the white savior look). Mitchell wasn’t that great with intersectionality either.

To say Harvey bites off more than she can chew is an understatement; it’s like she removed her dentures to make it extra painful to watch. On 2007’s “When Under Ether” she demonstrated a chilling calm for conveying what it’s like to go through an abortion procedure, and 1995’s “Down by the Water” had a similar empathy for the despondent yearning of its subject, who lost her daughter one way or another. Her tone on Project is hard to pinpoint; no dispassionate observer would report that the Ward 7 school she sings about “just looks like a s**thole” (as opposed to a “nice place”). The listener is forced to contend with the notion that she might be out of touch, out of her depth, or both. She wasn’t wrong to take on geopolitics in the first place; as Beauty Pill’s Chad Clark argued in his fair-minded essay about “Hope,” she did what artists do.

More frustrating than the conceptual failings of “Hope” is that its music holds up its end of the deal, with one of Harvey’s most beautiful melodies and forthright chord progressions in years. You don’t need to listen to “Accidental Racist” ever again, but you’ll have trouble resisting “Hope” for the remainder of 2016, cringing every time at its abrupt structure, the nonsensical way it rushes to its misguided Wal-Mart punchline and just as soon evaporates entirely. It needs to be longer than two minutes and 23 seconds for several reasons, mainly to unpack why opening a new place of employment in this one-sit-down-restaurant area is a bad thing. You’ll even ask yourself why the System of a Down-esque crunch-then-silence of the second track, “The Ministry of Defence,” wasn’t the opener instead. It’s a bad omen for the rest of the album, yet paradoxically one of the best songs on the record.

So disqualify “Hope” for its liabilities and you’re left with “The Wheel,” Project’s other single, rich with horn blats and a call-response chorus of backup gents, over a five-minute span that gets comfy in its space without rushing a thing. Nothing else on Project touches these two tracks as music, though the rest contains plenty of exciting ideas that never feel quite settled on. What is it with unfinished geniuses shooting themselves in the foot this year?

But like Kanye, Harvey’s musicality is unparalleled even on this relative failure in her high-standard discography, and if you give The Hope Six Demolition Project more chances than its bad ideas deserve, the good ones emerge. “The Ministry of Social Affairs” butterflies the pimp with a squawking, John Zorn-style breakdown, and the palm-muted, ghostly rockabilly of “A Line in the Sand” recalls the best of Let England Shake. And the appearance of the honorable dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson on “The Ministry of Defence” certainly adds credence to Harvey’s good intentions.

The marching “Medicinals” suffers again though, for pairing an attractive tune with an ogling description of a disabled woman in a Redskins cap that makes it difficult to tell if Harvey’s more disgusted by the woman’s existence or her predicament. Her failure to examine how her own economic status (and physical ability) fits into this woman’s world is far more ill-considered than, say, Macklemore admitting that his success is part of the same system that got off Darren Wilson.

That’s not a glib potshot: Musically, The Hope Six Demolition Project is Harvey’s blackest album by some distance, and few white artists would be able reconcile all the borrowings of gospel and jazz here with a class analysis. But Tom Waits has applied his minstrelsy-risking growl to not just anti-war material but multifaceted critiques: 2006’s “Road to Peace” put him in the suicide bomber’s shoes. Harvey never sits in the wheelchair. Plenty of the music here is enthrallingly Waits-ian (“The Orange Monkey,” “Chain of Keys”), and should be easier to enjoy at an unintelligible distance. Like, say, at medium volume while you’re reading Junot Díaz.

White Chalk is still the worst PJ Harvey album by far, that 2007 bundle of piano ruminations with names like “Dear Darkness” tucked inside tossed-off album art. Project is prime second-tier Polly, opening melodic and textural doors unlike much else you’ll hear in 2016, and it amounts to a lean, compulsively listenable 41 minutes that makes a conscientious effort to do something larger with her gifts. Much of it, especially the singles, adds something to her catalog, even if the most valuable takeaways are the questions it raises. But it writes one giant Publisher’s Clearing House-sized check that bounces. And that won’t turn a s**thole into a nice place.