Back in 2011 when ‘Let England Shake’ was released, Polly Harvey expressed a wish to be a war artist, a song-writer in residence for the conflict that still consumed Afghanistan. The presence of UK troops in the desert habitat was frequently referenced, notably in ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’. Harvey’s planned role never transpired, with UK forces withdrawn and the people of Afghanistan left to conduct their own fate. ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ could be seen as Harvey adapting her job description to one of ‘reportage songwriter’, travelling to several locales, accompanying photographer/filmmaker Seamus Murphy, the man responsible for the evocative films that compliment every track on ‘Let England Shake’.
Maybe it’s this continuation of both the subject matter and approach from the previous record that means ‘Hope Six…’ doesn’t feel like a vast step up from 2011’s Mercury Prize-winning release. The thing that helped ‘Let England Shake’ was its tight focus on one or two connected subjects i.e. war and England. With her attention firmly on those themes, Harvey could make digressions and parallels but always keep her lyrics tethered to a detailed meditation on the ‘grey, damp filthiness’ of English culture. This was further enhanced by a cohesive new musical palette, although keen-eared fans will have heard harbingers of its sound coming in both ‘White Chalk’ and ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’.
Gone was Harvey’s theatrical bass blues howl, replaced with a lighter, more delicate voice at a higher register. Still she retained some of the ventriloquist act speaking in tongues, tics and squeaks that have been her trademark for a while. The new vocal style (Harvey calls it her ‘church voice’, good for singing ‘Jerusalem’, no doubt) continues on ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ and it feels like Harvey is making a point about this new phase in her songwriting. She is no longer a spinner of fables and phantasmagoria, but an observer of the present day, a documentary troubadour. But it’s this insistence on veracity and simplicity that occasionally dents the album’s impact. In ‘The Orange Monkey’, Harvey seems to set out her MO for writing these songs ‘I took a plane to a foreign land/and said ‘I’ll write down what I find'”. Passing through various places and giving her impressions, at times the new lyrics feel as if they only observe the surface, and can veer close to the obvious.
I think Harvey is attempting to mirror the stark clarity of Seamus Murphy’s photography, and has decided to eliminate invented storytelling in order to hold true to that way of working. The listener is perhaps meant to read between the lines to find the impact these sights had upon Harvey, without the guidance of invented imagery or drama to convey their power. Perhaps though, even if fiction is ‘lying to tell the truth’, it might have served her better. ‘Medicinals’, ‘A Line In The Sand’ and ‘The Community of Hope’ aren’t mistaken or misleading in their observations, just somewhat redundant. ‘Community of Hope’ talks of decay and social breakdown in a district of Washington State, but whilst the climactic refrain ‘They’re gonna build a Walmart here’ might’ve been cutting back in 1985, today it’s just taken as read. ‘Medicinals’ sets up an interesting metaphor for history and progress, only to let it fall flat in the last verse. This is a shame because when Harvey’s eye chooses some really telling detail, the effects are strong indeed. ‘The Ministry of Defence’ pictures a diorama of wartime wreckage and shattered civilian ephemera, over-written by insistent marks of human survival. Likewise ‘Chain of Keys’ uses empty houses and overgrown gardens to hint at atrocities that will mark communities for ever.
Knocked back by the handful of misfiring lyrics, it took me a while to realise the true strength of ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ is its music. Working with long time collaborators Mick Harvey, John Parish, producer Flood and the man for whom the phrase ‘super-talented multi-instrumentalist’ was invented, Terry Edwards, Harvey’s lyrics sit in distinct aural landscapes that open up further and allow deeper investigation with each listen. Saxophone is the latest in Harvey’s bucket list of musical instruments to master, following piano on ‘White Chalk’ and autoharp on ‘Let England Shake’. The brass supplants guitar effects pedals to drive the relentless extended intro to ‘The Wheel’, whilst the angular overlapping soloing in ‘Ministry of Defence’ combine with hammer-blow staccato guitar chords to conjure images of weapons firing and the results: twisted metal reinforcements exposed by mortar fire in a ruined building.
The drums on ‘Hope Six…’ are frequently martial in character, but there’s also a loose, clattering feel, the standard rock kit drum set up has been scattered across several players. It feels homemade, as if during her travels, Polly has soaked up the sounds of public or folk music making in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as much as the sights. Insistent, slightly ramshackle, these rhythms could be drawn from weddings, funerals, festivals, marches and demonstrations. It was while watching Harvey’s set at Glastonbury this year that the new songs truly came into their own. Their syncopated energy hypnotises, and in the band Harvey has assembled she also creates a male voice choir for the ‘communal singing’ that she hoped ‘Let England Shake’ would inspire in audiences. The moment where this all comes together is toward the end of ‘River Anacostia’, with the crowd clapping a rhythm as the band come the front of the stage and sing a guttural cotton field chant. The longer it goes on, the deeper it goes into your ears and holds you until the song fades down to a standstill.
‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ turns out to be a serious piece of work, albeit with flaws, showing an artist still moving forward musically if not on the lyrical front. If the album doesn’t make a bold statement of change in the manner of ‘Let England Shake’, I remember that ‘Uh Huh Her’, a release that appeared to tread water somewhat, was followed by the rug-pull of ‘White Chalk’. Maybe something like that album is brewing in Polly Harvey’s head right now.