PJ Harvey, rock poet, turns journalist with eye on decay

British singer PJ Harvey performs on the stage of the 20th edition of the Vieilles Charrues Music Festival on July 17, 2011 in Carhaix, Brittany
AFP

Los Angeles (AFP) – With a guitar in hand rather than a notebook, rocker PJ Harvey has taken on the role of a journalist on a forceful new album that crosses continents to explore modern-day destruction.

“The Hope Six Demolition Project,” the ninth album by one of the most accoladed British musicians of her generation, turns Harvey’s observations on 21st-century decay into songs led by her trademark bluesy-punk guitar, with surprisingly uplifting touches.

Although Harvey traveled for the album to war-torn Afghanistan and Kosovo, much of the work explores Washington, where the rocker was interested not in the corridors of power but the poverty just a short distance away.

The album’s title is a reference to Hope VI, the 1990s US program that tore down decrepit public housing but which critics say failed to find adequate new accommodation for former residents.

Harvey aims to look at some of the lingering after-effects on the album’s first track, “The Community of Hope.” Set to a deceptively ebullient guitar riff that runs throughout the song, she travels on “the highway to death and destruction” in Washington’s low-income Ward 7, which she describes with the words “Now this is just drug town, just zombies / But that’s just life.”

Harvey wrote the song after a tour of Ward 7 led by a Washington Post journalist, Paul Schwartzman, a self-admitted unhip chronicler of the city who had not heard of Harvey but was asked to show around a visiting “musician/poet.”

The song climaxes in a chant about looming gentrification derived from Schwartzman’s tour — “They’re gonna put a Walmart here.” (In fact, the mega-chain announced while Harvey was recording the album that it was suspending plans to put a Walmart there.)

– Touches of hope –

The 46-year-old rocker, who can play virtually all instruments in her music, broke through with her 1995 album “To Bring You My Love” and is the only artist to win Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize twice.

Her other two Mercury-winning albums bear the closest narrative similarities to “The Hope Six Demolition Project.” “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” (2000) delved into Harvey’s love of New York City while 2011’s “Let England Shake,” her last album, weaved together stories of soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the political edge of “Let England Shake” was accompanied by an often dark musical backdrop, “The Hope Six Demolition Project” is belied by an optimism instilled by a saxophone that gives an urgent feel to tracks such as “A Line in the Sand,” “Chain of Keys” and “The Wheel.”

The saxophone takes on a larger role to complement the build-up in “Medicinals,” while “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” opens with a joyous folk sing-along.

The album culminates with Harvey’s bare voice on “Dollar, Dollar,” where she shows her vulnerability on seeing a child beggar in Afghanistan.

– Anger in Washington –

Harvey decided not to give any interviews for “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” letting her lyricism speak for itself.

In a sign of her inclinations, she spent release day Friday at a literary festival in Genoa, Italy where she presented her recent poetry collection — a collaboration with photographer Seamus Murphy that also takes place in Washington, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Her work in the vein of journalism has not met with universal acclaim from its subjects. While the boy in “Dollar, Dollar” is unlikely to hear the song, Washington residents have complained about her bleak portrayal of their city.

Although the criticism can partially be explained as hometown pride, Harvey may also have run into gaps in trans-Atlantic sensibility. Most white American arthouse musicians would steer clear of writing songs from fleeting encounters in their own country, such as when Harvey sings about Washington’s National Mall that “a black man in overalls arrives to empty the trash” and a woman in a wheelchair sips “a new painkiller for the native people.”

The Community of Hope, a Washington charity, took exception to Harvey’s description of “zombies” and her emphasis on the cityscape.

“By calling out this picture of poverty in terms of streets and buildings and not the humans who live here,” it said in a statement, “have you not reduced their dignity?”

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