From gentrification to the refugee crisis, we unpack some of the meanings behind The Hope Six Demolition Project
One of PJ Harvey’s favourite writers, Bertolt Brecht, said that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” On her Mercury Prize-winning 2011 album Let England Shake, Harvey struck out at the coalition government in power in the UK at the time, as well as the British military of a hundred years ago. “England’s dancing days are done,” she proclaims on the album’s title track, but today her concerns are no longer unique to England. Harvey’s latest album The Hope Six Demolition Project raises a different question: with war, an ongoing refugee crisis, and global poverty affecting our consciences daily, can we confidently say that we listened when the first cries were made?
For Let England Shake, Harvey read the modern day testimonies of civilians and soldiers involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts alongside those of the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I. In doing so, she sought to subvert the received history of past and present wars, creating an exchange between the timely and the timeless. A similar objective inspired The Hope Six Demolition Project: over a three year period, Harvey visited Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C., and last year she published (alongside Seamus Murphy) the poetry collection The Hollow of the Hand as her first dispatch. In the press release for the book, Harvey said that “gathering information from secondary sources felt too far removed for what I was trying to write about. I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil, and meet the people of the countries.”
Like Let England Shake and The Hollow of the Hand, The Hope Six Demolition Project sees Harvey use her art as a form of journalism. “What I’ve seen — yes, it’s changed how I see humankind,” she sings on “A Line In The Sand”. Yet despite all of this, her belief in humanity remains in the ability to empathise with problems removed from our particular space: her the belief is that “we have a future to do something good”. These problems will affect us all eventually; we are not trying to solve them by watching in silence.
Harvey is declining interviews around The Hope Six Demolition Project, so it’s left to the listener to interpret what she means. Here, Dazed breaks down her record into its four key areas.
WITNESSING AND TELLING
When she released “The Community of Hope” last month, Harvey was criticised by politicians in Washington, D.C. for painting an incomplete picture of the Ward 7 neighbourhood. But it’s important to look at what Harvey might mean with this line. In the album’s lyric sheet, after describing the area as a “well-known pathway of death”, the words “at least that’s what I’m told” appear in parenthesis, while on “The Orange Monkey” she sings, “I took a plane to a foreign land / And said, ‘I’ll write down what I find’.” These are small details, but they acknowledge that her understanding of these situations come from other people’s experiences.
ADDRESSING THE REFUGEE CRISIS
It would be untrue to say that high profile musicians haven’t addressed the ongoing refugee crisis — last year, for example, M.I.A. released “Borders”, with its video depicting M.I.A. in a customised Paris St-Germain replica football shirt, with their sponsor ‘Fly Emirates’ modified to ‘Fly Pirates’. “What’s up with that?” she sang before the club demanded a removal of the video. On “The Wheel”. Harvey extends the evocative imagery with a caveat: for every one picture of a dead child, 28,000 children are lost on a revolving wheel and are unaccounted. Harvey is the observer who watches them fade out — although her trauma is incomparable to their fate.
SOCIAL CLEANSING AND GENTRIFICATION
The Hope Demolition Six Project takes its title from the HOPE VI project conceived by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The goal was to bring the transform some of the country’s poorest public housing projects into mixed-income areas, though the project has been criticised. In the case of Washington D.C.’s Ward 7, many former residents are no longer able to live there, while councillors have been accused of enacting social cleansing and gentrification in the area. “It certainly looks a lot better,” says Jason Schwartzman, the reporter whose voice you hear in the video for “The Community of Hope”, after he taxied Harvey and Murphy around the area. The video is a small vignette, but, on the song, Harvey prioritises a poor population hurt by undelivered ideals.
WAR, COLONIALISM, AND CAPITALISM
Voices from Kosovo and Afghanistan appear across the album. They include a “blind man singing in Arabic” on “The Wheel”, families fighting for food on “A Line In The Sand”, and field recordings of chants on “Dollar, Dollar”. The ramifications of capitalism and colonisation are visible at the home of the superpowers, too: on “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln”, a boy at the refreshment stands throws out his hands for food scraps to feed a family, while “Medicinals” lists the natural and herbal remedies used by indigenous peoples before highlighting the woman sitting in the wheelchair drinking alcohol, her “new painkiller”.
Across these songs, Harvey exhibits the verse of T.S. Eliot. On “The Ministry of Defence” she echoes Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men, repeating the phrase “This is the way the world ends”. Through historical criticism, Harvey maintains that the hollow men that dictate order are responsible for the cultural and spiritual mess we’ve found ourselves in. Eliot appends that destruction will come “not with a bang but with a whimper”, but Harvey’s words are less passive — she draws a line in the sand and calls them a sham for not learning a lesson.