"I will not dignify this inane composition with a response" was Washington, D.C.'s former mayor Vincent Gray's (wholly disingenuous) response to The Community of Hope, the lead track from The Hope Six Demolition Project. The song, a social commentary inspired by the Ward 7 area that sits at the eastern tip of the city, drew criticism from commentators for its perceived unfair and unhelpful portrayal of an area struggling with economic downturn, social upheaval and a host of recent failed redevelopment projects.
"Here's the Hope Six Demolition Project, stretching down to Benning Road," sings Harvey, "a well-known pathway of death (at least that's what I'm told.)" Gray would no doubt counsel Harvey to check her sources before publication. He might also, as would others (including current mayor Yvette Alexander, who tweeted "I respect all forms of artistic expression but this song does not reflect Ward 7"), request that that expression find some room for answers amidst the questions – or, at least, some hint of seeking to balance negative with positive.
For the listener, though, PJ Harvey's ninth album presents problems thornier than mere perceived artistic license and minimal fact-checking. Conceived partly in public sessions early in 2015 at Somerset House, Harvey allowed her fans to eavesdrop on the creative process as regular collaborators Flood and John Parish helped shape her unfolding vision. The courage of that kind of (literal) transparency can only be applauded but now that the complete work is here, it's major failing is, in some way, linked to its unique provenance: The Hope Six Demolition Project is, in many ways, too open for its own good.
Where previously, Harvey has brought a unique and advancing aesthetic to her work (and its multiple stylistic shifts), one that delivered thrilling colour and shape and allowed room for the listener to have to work and stretch, here she opts for a distinct stiffening and simplification of her mode of expression.
The musical setting is elementary and austere, its arrangements thick with bottom end as thumping percussion, and woodwind and brass brew up an ersatz chamber rock that is muscular rather than lyrical, and solidly backs, rather than leads, its creator. Fans hoping for a return to the sweetly twisted melodics of 2011's Let England Shake will be disappointed. The music serves the words and little more. And the words – the words serve… what? This is an issues-driven work – a treatise, an unblinking presentation of the Harvey worldview.
That view, developed over recent years as the singer toured the US, Kosovo and Afghanistan, is as far from confessional as can be. Though Harvey has never really been a truly confessional artist, even back when her sound was still anchored to 'traditional' influences and fitted out for the purpose. Even with a sliver of blues, she was sharp enough to style her words away from open-hearted sharing. There are moments, too many moments, when you wish she'd colour her observations with a dusting of a poetry, skew the view, make us work, let us in.
When she sings, on The Ministry of Defence, "they've sprayed graffiti in Arabic and balanced sticks in human shit", you're there all at once: amidst the heat and the fizzing tension of a war zone. But you’re adrift and off balance – what to do with this? Admire it? Perhaps. Sing along? Enjoy? Flesh it out with your own - accompanying, complementary - response? As with much of this difficult record, it's a timely reminder that being hectored is rarely a very fulfilling experience.
Is it fair to draw comparisons with this album's well-loved predecessor? Surely: with PJ Harvey, we reserve the right to expect multitudes. And there were moments on Let England Shake where its studied and storied foundation came alive through some beautiful and ambitious staging. It also dared spark its narratives into life with often beguiling wordplay. It was enriched by its words and its music and it bloomed like a dialogue, an intrigue between artist and listener. "How is our glorious land bestowed?" sang Harvey and you marvelled at her greedy ambition. She stared down "death's anchorage", sang of widows with "their arms as bitter branches", tossed in the bugle call of the Regimental March as a head-spinning, rug-pulling sample. Few would dare be quite so playful with such dark matter.
Here, the flattened arrangements and the thin, almost dutiful reportage result in a presentation so straight, it becomes, ultimately, reductive. This record is going to test some longstanding loyalties. On A Line in the Sand, Harvey sings "How to stop the murdering? By now we should have learned / If we don’t then we're a sham, bad overwhelms the good."
Partly out of context exposed on the page, those are words that make for uncomfortable reading but, really, they're similarly stilted when sung. Terry Edwards' baritone sax buzzes around them in an itchy, frantic dance. The first half of the album rarely steps outside of its plain soundboard but Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln offers bright uplift with the appearance of mellotron and flute, but still, the story is a drab one: "a black man in overalls arrives to empty the trash / hauls it to a metal hatch, a doorway opens up to the underworld."
In Medicinals, Harvey walks through a shopping mall, imagining the ground as it was before, unspoilt and full of herbs, flowers, natural remedies. She closes with the upshot of all of this commercial encroachment: "…that woman sitting in the wheelchair with her Redskins cap on backwards…from inside a paper wrapper she sips from a bottle, a new painkiller for the native people." In The Ministry of Social Affairs she observes from: "…a junction on the ground an amputee and a pregnant hound / Sit by young men with withered arms, as if death had already passed." As if death had already passed. Is that, honestly, a line conceived with artistry and care?
As the album progresses, Harvey's detailing of the scenes around her wants for bite, for a draught of righteous fury. Her approach, this reasoned and almost disconnected commentary, has the ring of impartiality. "What’s happened? Let's go and ask the Ministry of Social Affairs," she sings. Let's not, you think.That's probably not the answer, you think.
Lead track The Wheel is an inch away from greatness. Its "Hey little children, don't disappear" hook is a wonder even after the lyric sheet reveals its overtly literal intent ("the children vanish behind a vehicle…faces, limbs, a bouncing skull.") Even better, it's one of the few occasions here where you get to hear the voice loud and unfettered and free. You think: this is almost Big Exit. Almost.
The Hope Six Demolition Project ends in unwavering close-up and with a disorienting series of street recordings: urgent, panicked Arabic, voices insistent. In Dollar, Dollar, Harvey is a passenger in a car as she watches a young boy begging for money in the traffic: "I can't look through or past the face saying dollar, dollar." A shuddering hymnal, dread beats and a film of murky keys. Somewhere, a caterwauling sax flits and jerks. "I turn to you to ask for something we can offer." The world disappears into the rear view – this part of it, at least, this unsettling scene.
PJ Harvey's least beautiful record by some distance, The Hope Six Demolition Project's intentions are admirable and inarguable. But weighed against the expectations raised by the overwhelming invention of her stout back catalogue, it falls uncomfortably short.