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PJ Harvey is Mortal

PJ Harvey is a genius musician whose songs often provide keen insight into human nature, but she isn’t a journalist. She tries to be one on her new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which focuses on modern politics and her experiences traveling to Washington D.C., Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In the process, she proves that even the most gifted, well-intentioned and insightful artists aren’t immune to the lapses in judgment that happen when you stumble out of your comfort zone.

Part of Let England Shake‘s greatness was that it pulled off a delicate balancing act: Harvey was using stories she wasn’t a witness to and interpreting history to make observations about modern society, which can be a heavy feat to try to pull off in a series of short songs and comes at the risk of the artist not knowing what they’re talking about. It worked because there was the personal connection Harvey had to England, and because it was telling stories from the more distant past that weren’t fresh in most people’s minds and were thus more ripe for interpretation.

The Hope Six Demolition Project struggles because it is focused on the present, which makes the issues more controversial and well-known. When Harvey describes an area of Washington D.C. as “a shithole” with drug-using “zombies” in “The Community of Hope,” she is talking about a place where people currently live — and many of them aren’t too happy about the portrayal. Harvey toured the area with a reporter, and in his description of the encounter, she comes across as an outsider who floated in, jotted down some notes, and confirmed her pre-existing conclusion about the area without actually talking to any of its residents. Much of this album has that similar cursory feel, like it is only scratching the surface of its themes without having all the information or nuance. She is like a reporter who didn’t do all of her homework before submitting a story.

It sounds silly to talk about these sorts of journalistic standards in music, as if I would expect Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers to thoroughly research the effects of “Californication” before playing a song about it. But Harvey has established a different standard for herself, and if an artist of her caliber is going to try something of this scope, my expectations are going to be high. And it is Harvey herself who is missing from this album: without the personal connection to the subject matter, like she had on Let England Shake, the lyrics are just the kind of political commentary that everyone who is on the internet is tired of hearing about. The perspectives she is offering aren’t fresh or thought-provoking, and the focus on distant observations about foreign cities makes her seem like an intruder into other people’s stories.

This criticism probably makes the album sound like a disaster, but it’s fine musically and most artists would be happy to ever make something that sounds like this. After a couple albums of ghostly songs that used her higher register, Harvey sings more forcefully on this album and brings back some of the noise and chaos of her early albums in the form of honking saxophone parts and some distorted guitar. However, the sound also doesn’t feel all that new for Harvey, since it’s a lot of parts and ideas she’s used in her previous music, as opposed to one of her customary skin-sheddings like on White Chalk. Combined with the lyrics (which admittedly are hard to separate from the music for me), it is part of why this album is flat and uninspired for her standards.

The Hope Six Demolition Project will likely go down as one of my least favorite PJ Harvey albums, but it is a fascinating project that makes me think a lot about the limitations of music. In the span of 3-5 minutes, musicians can do incredible things and make us feel inspired, sad, or amazed. But in terms of portraying complex political issues and communities, subjects that demand a certain amount of nuance and space, maybe it isn’t possible to accomplish what Harvey is trying to do here. Certainly, if she can’t do it, I’m skeptical that anyone else can.

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