Sound — 8
Despite spring-boarding into reputable alternative rock success in the earlier half of her career - getting praised by Kurt Cobain, as well as working with Steve Albini and Thom Yorke - PJ Harvey has always been concerned with moving forward into new territory as a musician. Within the past decade, she went from leaving her dependable rock style to write a piano-centric album in 2007's "White Chalk" (an endeavor fueled by her own inexperience with the instrument), to going into a more acoustic folk sound in 2011's "Let England Shake," which not only showed her using more new instruments for her music (like the autoharp and saxophone), but also introduced a more politically-conscious phase for her as a lyricist; all of this resulted in the album being her most critically-acclaimed.
Though Harvey's new album, "The Hope Six Demolition Project," stands in a daunting position as being the successor to the highly-lauded "Let England Shake," it takes Harvey's politically-charged approach to music even further, with the album being the creative result of traveling with photographer/filmmaker Seamus Murphy (whose work inspired her subject matter in her previous album) to a number of impoverished areas, including Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the poorest areas of Washington, D.C. going hand in hand with this inspiration, Harvey's musical output in the album gravitates towards vintage styles of sociopolitical music, from blues (heard in "The Ministry of Social Affairs," and the call-and-response of "The Ministry of Defence"), folk rock (heard in the Jefferson Airplane-esque arrangement of "The Wheel"), and protest songs (heard in the dour singalong of "Chain of Keys," and the drum-circling likes of "The Orange Monkey"). In contrast to the more delicate arrangements of Harvey's last few albums, an increase in electric guitar usage gives "The Hope Six Demolition Project" more power to it, and even further, Harvey brandishes her saxophone even more, playing solos both frenetic (in "The Ministry of Social Affairs") and graceful (in "Dollar, Dollar").
Despite the increase in power and size, though, the most resonant sonic aspect of "The Hope Six Demolition Project" is how Harvey's compositions complement the narratives she writes with her lyrics. Her ethereal and fragile singing in "A Line in the Sand" and "Dollar, Dollar" perfectly portrays the lyrics of doe-eyed optimism being exposed to the cruel realities of the world, but while this frail anguish is expected of Harvey (calling back to the style of "White Chalk"), Harvey also displays some positive moments (like the sunny folksiness of "Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln"), though she puts some twists to them. With the empowered horn melodies and stronger singing of "Medicinals" weaving a triumphant feel, it takes a crestfallen turn at the end with gentler guitars and vocals. And the power pop pep of "The Community of Hope" is actually a sardonic show of positivity when paired with the depressing imagery in Harvey's lyrics.
Lyrics — 8
Staying loose at face value, Harvey's connecting lyrical themes throughout the album are subtle and satisfying to catch, and her blurring of lines between which country songs take place in essentially acts as a critique of the poor living situation that many face in the capitol of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. With the titular imagery in "Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln," the Vietnam Memorial symbolizes military intervention doing more harm than good (the after-effects of which in Afghanistan are portrayed in "The Ministry of Defence"), and the Lincoln Memorial is a bitingly ironic symbol to how the impoverished minority population in D.C. (first described in "The Community of Hope") is far from Lincoln's idealistic order of Emancipation centuries ago; even further, the symbolism of the boy pretending to feed the birds just for a reaction can be interpreted as the city stating its desire to help its poor residents but never following through. And where the narrative of humanitarian relief in "A Line in the Sand" is painted in a light of being mankind's meager attempt to heal a devastated nation, "Medicinals" has Harvey thinking of healing herbs and imagining the healthy purity of D.C.'s lush land long before it was colonized, later referencing modernity and its manmade remedies with spitting grimness ("But do you see that woman, sitting in the wheelchair? / With her Redskins cap on backwards... She sips from a bottle / A new painkiller / For the native people").
But with all this criticism towards this desolation and poverty that can be easily fixed given a humane redistribution of wealth (noted in the harrowing division between homeless beggars and money handlers in "The Ministry of Social Affairs"), Harvey also highlights an inability to try and change things for the better in the face of this. This ambivalent line between wishing for the best but never being able to remedy all suffering is first shown in the teetering between pessimism and optimism in "A Line in the Sand" ("I make no excuse / We got things wrong / But I believe / We also did some good"), but it gets more personal and ugly in the final "Dollar, Dollar," where Harvey ignores a child begging for money at their car but is unable to ignore the empathetic turmoil of the sight and her choice to do nothing ("All my words get swallowed / In the rear view glass / A face pock-marked and hollow / He's saying 'dollar, dollar'").
Overall Impression — 8
Being a tribute to the power of protest songs, "The Hope Six Demolition Project" not only makes for another new step in Harvey's winding catalog, but effectively builds off of the same spirit that made "Let England Shake" as captivating as it was. With its increase of sociopolitical critique and personal turmoil in the wake of such, as well as its increase in instrumental strength, "The Hope Six Demolition Project" does a good job upping the ante in a number of ways while still maintaining the raw and honest qualities Harvey's music has always wielded.