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PJ Harvey, Political Activist? ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ Reviewed

by Alexandria Wojcik   Apr 25, 2016 20:30 PM EDT

P J Harvey poses for a photo ahead of a preview screening of the second series of 'Peaky Blinders' at Ham Yard Hotel on September 28, 2014 in London, England.  ( Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images )

The Hope Six Demolition Project leaves one asking if English rocker PJ Harvey has turned into a political activist. Marking the singer-songwriter's ninth full-length studio album, The Hope Six Demolition Project was recorded in public sessions as part of a living art exhibit in London and was inspired by her travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. alongside filmmaker Seamus Murphy.

Even before the album dropped in full, it was labeled "controversial" by many following the release of singles "The Community Of Hope," "The Wheel" and "The Orange Monkey." "Community Of Hope," which documents the singer's visit to the Washington, D.C. neighborhood known as Ward 7 and refers to residents as "drug-town zombies," inspired some local politicians to liken Harvey to Piers Morgan.

In a similar vein, it wouldn't be a stretch for some social justice warriors to join the chorus of critics cautiously warning that the album might just be a misguided work of poverty tourism, another privileged artist's exploitation of the oppressed in the name of rock-n-roll. That is, until those critics actually give the album a listen.
Throughout the record, Harvey adopts a journalistic narrative voice similar to Brandon Stanton's in his ongoing "Humans of New York" photography project: rarely editorializing lyrically, yet decidedly nuanced in the parts of the stories which she chooses to portray. It is political, but the sinuous stories are told through the singer's decades-long command of her guitar with some extra blues influences, creeping choruses and wailing saxophone solos thrown in to remind listeners: this is first and foremost a rock masterpiece.

One standout example of this juxtaposition of politics and rock is "River Anacostia," a proto-punk bluesy lamentation of one of America's most polluted rivers which flows through Washington, D.C. into the better-known (and better taken-care-of) wide-mouthed and sparkling Potomac River. In this song, she adopts the narrative tone of 60s folk-singing activists to shine a light on an unpopular socio-political issue, but she does so without sacrificing her unwavering rock-n-roll sound.

Coincidentally, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a US-based environmental advocacy organization, released a report about efforts to revitalize Washington, D.C.'s long-neglected river titled "Healing The Anacostia's Troubled Waters" this past March. The report confirms the singer's concerns: often referred to as the Capitol's "forgotten river," the Anacostia is "severely polluted by sediment, nutrients, pathogens, toxins, and trash."

The NRDC report, which focuses on the myriad clean-up initiatives working together to bring the river back to its glorious pre-industrialization state, takes on a slightly more hopeful tone than Harvey's song about it. But unlike the many environmental organizations that have adopted the revitalization project, the singer's goal wasn't to point any fingers, or to condemn policymakers and polluters, or even to call people to action: she had set out to tell the unspoken story of scenes she witnessed during her travels, which is exactly what she achieved on this track and the album as a whole.

In other words: like much of the "Rid Of Me" singer's works, one listen to The Hope Six Demolition Project almost mandates turning it up, playing it on repeat, and moshing around one's living room to it. Each track is simultaneously confrontational and coquettish, politically-inclined and emotionally raw, impossible to ignore. The same goes for its message, which similarly creeps up on listeners and is equally impossible to ignore.

Check out the moving video for "The Community of Hope," comprised of footage shot by Murphy, below.

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