Okay now, this is just drug town,” PJ Harvey sings to the melody of ‘Like a Virgin’ with a northern soul drum beat, big guitars and sax. And there we have it encapsulated (or glibly reduced to explain it quickly for the purposes of an album review). ‘Drug Town’ is fuelled by many substances, but the narcotic that Harvey treats with the most contempt is power. The song is called ‘The Community of Hope,’ it chooses American gothic over Walmart capitalism. As does the remainder of ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, which is a socially-aware trans-Atlantic political album: all death, power and loss, religion, race, class and money. It is ambitious but not without tune.

Harvey wrote the album in Washington DC – there America’s military-industrial might (where cronyism and decades of myopic neo-liberal consensus make a mockery of democracy) sits beside some of the most impoverished, racially-divided areas in the country. As a wandering observer she makes grand statements out of scrag-ends of experience and visions as they slide past her car window. Harvey is wide-eyed in disgust. ‘Chain of Keys’ observes an old woman walking to a closed church in a dying neighbourhood and Harvey wonders what she’s seen to a funeral march.

‘Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln’ is brilliantly off-kilter, my favourite song on the album, and turns the casual actions of tourists into something grotesque as they enjoy the fiction hiding an underworld of filth and fear. Perhaps it represents a moment of self-awareness as a spectator. The tour of Washington continues on ‘Medicianals’ which mixes the city’s grot – an odyssey in the supermarket – with something a little pastoral. It has something of a John Lennon song about it and it encompasses how Harvey embraces other aspects of America – folk and RnB, jazz, Black America. The ‘Ministry of Social Affairs’ rips the Bo Diddley beat from a sample of Jerry McCain’s ‘That’s What They Want,’ meanders through the political district and finishes up with someone screaming through a bass sax. ‘The Orange Monkey’ has something of a western to it, but the wild’s gone from the west and now only the cowboys remain. The symbolism might use broad strokes conceptually, but it’s poetic and timely.

It’s a disorienting album, but written by someone trying to make sense of something alien and repulsive when at the same time compelling and mesmeric. Communicating these images and ideas while making a larger political point – however much we’ve heard it before – works when set to Harvey’s words, voice and ear for a disquieting tune. People might take account of aspects of poverty porn and cultural exploitation or appropriation – ‘River Anacostia’ begins with the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ – but when Harvey reaches into those sounds and images she’s not mawkish or unsympathetic and retains a strong sense of her own identity. If PJ Harvey did not exist she’d be difficult to imagine.


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