Easier to stomach than Let England Shake because the critics weren’t toppling over themselves this time around.
Still too lazy to review that record but shit, you’da thunk the critical hosannas would have died down after five years – “groundbreaking?” There was nothing groundbreaking about PJ Harvey’s depiction of war over the folk sound of the autoharp (recalling Joni Mitchell); certainly not when she took the military horns out of the Byrds’ “Draft Morning” and hammed it the fuck up, or when she leveraged an anthem for youth for her purposes on a song with the word “Maketh” in its title. Those were two of that album’s singles.
Supposedly, The Hope Sex Demolition Project ups the politics from Let England Shake to the now while returning to the blistering guitar of the first half of her discography, while retaining a slight folksy feel; a lot of those male backing vocals are present here. Sounds good right it? At least, in theory: PJ Harvey hasn’t made a great one in sixteen years now, mostly because she’s abandoned a lot of the physical power that made her worth listening to. But, simply put, some of this doesn’t sound good: the lurching blues rock of “The Ministry of Defence” doesn’t shed its stiltedness until a shronking saxophone comes in near the back half to fill in the empty space; “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” seems to be a carrying case for its hook, which is over-stuffed (the verses otherwise feature a haunting piano line that you can get elsewhere in her own discography).
And then there’s the issue of PJ Harvey’s “politics” and other people’s responses to it. I don’t have a problem with musicians getting political on their record; one of the best albums of last year was a deeply political one, and if they want to write songs about real issues to lend their songs gravity, then go for it. My issue with the politics of The Hope Six Demolition Project is how textbook it is, similar to the depictions of war in the aforementioned Let England Shake. “Medicinals,” which follows one of the album’s worst songs (“Memorials”) and then one of the album’s most inconsequential (“The Orange Monkey”), has her harmonizing over a saxophone riff in the verses and then a call and a response chorus that’s one of the album’s catchiest. All good stuff, but PJ Harvey’s commentary on alcoholism as “a new painkiller” for the native people, thrown in at the very end of the song, doesn’t actually comment on anything. Nor does the opener, which has gotten itself a lot of attention: I get the feeling that PJ Harvey doesn’t think a Wal-Mart being built in a poor community (with drug addicts and a school that “just looks like a shithole”) will fix that community’s problems but how would I know, though? She doesn’t take stances throughout the album, and let me just say, Wal-Mart probably will do more good for the community any alternative, given recent CSR strategies. Doesn’t help PJ’s case that the line sounds like she just finished listening to Laurie Anderson’s “Big Science,” the one that goes “We’ll just take a right where they’re going to build that new shopping mall.”
Speaking of Ms. Anderson, put it this way: PJ Harvey’s lyrics here sound like Lou Reed’s, that is, they took notes on the world that they saw around them. There weren’t any solutions offered, merely “this is how some people live in the world that you might not know.” There’s a nice bit in “Chain of Keys” where the male backing vocals drop out and PJ Harvey’s left to sing – and she sings it so well – “The neighbours won’t be coming back” and “Fifteen houses falling down,” a reference to men who died in the Kosovo War. But see, the problem between the two lyricists – one an accidentally great poet and the other turned Super-Serious about her non-poetry in the last half-decade – is that Lou Reed’s note-taking was evocative and made you care about the characters he wrote about. By comparison, the Native American in “Medicinals” and the beggar-child of “Dollar, Dollar” are non-entities, only to service the musical good, while you wouldn’t know what inspired “Chain of Keys” unless PJ Harvey told you outside of the song.
Still, this isn’t a bad record: there’s a handful of good songs here: there’s some particularly breathtaking flickers to falsetto in “A Line in the Sand” and “Chain of Keys”; the deeper, male backing vocals in “River Anacostia” ground PJ Harvey’s airier singing (as opposed to the rest of the record, where they’re doing nothing particular of note). And curiously, the highlights here come in batches of three: the record ends with its best songs. “The Ministry of Social Affairs” renders “Ministry of Defence” completely obsolete by using the same trick – building up a blues rock song and eventually incorporating a blistering saxophone solo – butnot sounding bad. Similarly, she tries to take you to Afghanistan with her on “Dollar, Dollar,” the starkest tracks on the album with only a light beat and a backing vocal hook singing the title’s tracks that gives the child a voice that he otherwise doesn’t have.
And then there’s “The Wheel,” which has fast-paced handclaps adding momentum and the sear of an electric guitar that the album could’ve desperately used more of (what a misleading lead single). My favorite bit: PJ Harvey’s coda where she sings “And watch them fade out” while the song – and the 28,000 dead – refuse to do anything but.
All-in-all, I think a B’s fitting. That’s about the same score the last one deserves too.