Capitalism crushes souls. Words become meaningless. We attach words like “hope” or “deliverance” to projects or centers that were supposed to serve our forgotten communities. Instead they become empty husks symbolic of the empty promises of the American Dream.
Not since Vietnam has the American psyche been so fragile. Wages have stagnated since the 1970’s, faith in our public institutions is at a historic low and the American center has collapsed and given rise to a proto-fascist. PJ Harvey returns after a 5 year absence to turn her gaze towards the people who were left behind by free trade agreements, deregulation and disastrous foreign interventions.
Let England Shake is a phenomenal anti-war album that doubles as a swan song to the end of the European dominance over the global stage. On Hope Six Demolition Project Harvey still sings about war but instead of focusing her gaze on the immediate death and destruction it brings, she turns her attention towards the consequences of war. The poor, famished kid of Kabul asking for a dollar in “Dollar, Dollar.” The “sun-bleached photographs” of the disappeared Albanians during the Kosovo War. They are the forgotten victims of our foreign adventures, the ones who have to suffer through our recklessness. Harvey is here to remind us that our actions have consequences and that the West often seems to not really give a fuck.
Hope Six takes setting in locations different and vast from one another. Washington, D.C, Kabul, Kosovo. Each spanning three different continents but all mired in poverty. Be it the through desertion (Washington D.C.), decades worth of foreign intervention (Kabul) or the devastation of ethnic violence and sectarianism (Kosovo) all three locations are connected by the poverty that distinguishes all three communities. “River Anacostia,” the highlight of the album, is a gospel hymn named after the polluted river south of Washington, D.C. The chorus is a direct allusion to a black spiritual. African-Americans escaping a brutal slave regime in the South would often use rivers to navigate themselves to free soil. It’s a sharp contrast that Harvey paints, a contrast of blighted people whose only recourse for freedom is now poisoned. This is the abject, debilitating poverty that not even the greatest empire on Earth has been able to escape.
Harvey lays the criticisms thick. While Let England Shake was marked by a distinct sadness, Hope Six is instead angry and detached. Harvey is shocked by the indifference from the world surrounding her. How can there be so much progress, yet our world remain not far off from the violent conditions from the first World War. Great advances in medicine, technology and even society, yet there remains a permanent underclass that remains powerless to the plunder of rich oligarchs. Historic low points in violence, yet a brutal ethnic cleansing took place in Europe as recently as two decades ago. This is what separates Let England Shake and Hope Six Demolition Project. It is the immediacy of our now contrasted with the hindsight of our then. For Harvey, humans have not really progressed much from the first World War.
Let England Shake is one of the best albums of our past 16 years. It was centered around a clear anti-war message supported by the imagery and themes of the first World War, specifically, the Battle of Gallipoli. The music was largely built around traditional British folk songs. It was nostalgia for the old glory of the British Empire, for a time when Europe was largely isolated from its devastating colonial and racist foreign policies. The first World War marked the death of the innocence of Europe. Gone were the days when war was fought with honor and chivalry. Now present were the days of shell shock, mustard gas and Pyrrhic marches into “No Man’s Land.” Hope Six Demolition Project had really big shoes to fill, but that doesn’t mean that it fails at what it sets out to do. Songs such as “Chain of Keys” or “Near the Memorial to Vietnam and Lincoln” are dull songs with repeating uninteresting rhythms, but there’s some very powerful moments. “Community of Hope,” the aforementioned “River Anacostia” and “Dollar, Dollar,” “The Orange Monkey” and “The Wheel” are all very strong highlights that sometimes flirts with the brilliance of Let England Shake.
Harvey doesn’t need to make a grand significant statement about the poverty that she saw while on her travels. She is a famous rock musician. For all intents and purposes, she is in a protective bubble and Harvey knows it. She doesn’t need to be the sanctimonious rock star paying lip service to the plight of the poor. There’s already one Bono too many. What the poor need isn’t the pity of another rock star, what they need is someone to get shit out for everyone else to see.