I am nothing if not a creature of habit, and it seems that a new yearly tradition has seeped it’s way into my music listening habits. What it is, is that after we here at the blog have done our top ten albums of the year and I’ve exhausted all musical pleasure I’ve been able to squeeze out of the past year, I look back to some artist that I’ve overlooked and try to go deep into their discography. This year my ignorance reclamation project was PJ Harvey, a singer/songwriter whom I’d really never given a fair shake, since I guess she just always seemed a little too, I don’t know, difficult to get into. Also, it didn’t really help that Harvey’s two most recent albums — 2007’s White Chalk and 2011’s Let England Shake — marked a bit of a departure from Harvey’s sludgy, emotionally exhaustive ’90s work, which would’ve appealed to my sensibilities a bit more than these recent albums.
Then on top of that, Harvey is one of the few artists I can think of where her most critically acclaimed album also happens to be her least accessible (1993’s Rid Of Me). Thankfully, with more accessible (and awesome) releases like 1992’s Dry and 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, I was able to penetrate the greatness that is Polly Jean Harvey, and because I was planning on doing a retrospecticus in honor of this latest release from her, I’ve listened to every single one of her LP’s. And maybe it’s for the better that I never had enough time to get around to writing that retrospecticus, since here’s all I really would’ve had to say about all of PJ Harvey’s albums:
They’re all good! Go listen to them!
Honestly, she’s one of the more consistently great artists of the past few decades that I’ve encountered. However, I feel like in rock and roll, consistency is not necessarily the sexiest trait, though I think it is if you happen to be a legitimate music geek in need of an idol you can depend on. Which reminds of when I went to go buy my first Harvey albums a few months ago at a local record store, and I had a short conversation with the lady at the checkout counter, who was pleased with my purchase, remarking, “We were listening to the new Savages album in here the other day, and I thought ‘This sounds like PJ Harvey.’ How come the kids aren’t listening to PJ Harvey?” And at the time, I didn’t have an answer, since I was still one of those kids not listening to PJ Harvey in that moment.
But after diving deep in to her entire output, there are a few reasons I can put my finger on as to why PJ Harvey isn’t as widely beloved as an artist of this magnitude should be. As I stated earlier, her music is for lack of a better term, difficult. Some of it can be kind of wrenching, some of it can be quite dark and moody, and some of it can be more than a little abrasive. I mean her biggest hit is “Down By The Water”, which is a good song for sure, but feels like something that could only be popular in the mid-90’s, since its lurching quality fails to produce a traditional hook by today’s standards. And I feel like PJ Harvey seems a bit underappreciated at this point in time also because we are going through a period where indie rock (where Harvey is most closely associated, despite most of her career being spent on major label) has become very pop-y. Artists who dare to do something raw and honest and produce albums that maybe take a few listens to get a handle on are not nearly as in vogue as they were when Harvey first broke onto the scene in the early 90s.
Also, in addition to that, PJ Harvey’s latest album is, like all PJ Harvey albums, a good one. But it’s not quite a career landmark for her or anything, while the word “project” feels like an appropriate word in describing it. Much of the album’s lyrical content concerns Harvey’s recent trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and an impoverished section of Washington D.C., whose perhaps overly simplistic depiction in the album’s title track has drawn scorn from several D.C. local politicians. And since Harvey seems to be critiquing communities that cannot help but seem foreign to her, the lyrics do sometimes feel like that of an outsider who doesn’t necessarily understand the complexities of the situations surrounding these communities.
That said, I think it would be foolish to say that Harvey paints herself as a figure devoid of sympathy for her fellow man on The Hope Six Demolition Project, since she has plenty of that and seems particularly good at conjuring these poverty-stricken images meant to provoke a response. Also, there seems to be a bit of a multi-cultural flavor (for lack of a better term) to these songs that blends nicely with Harvey’s stark songwriting instincts, though I’m not sure if they necessarily push her music forward in any particular direction. Because getting back to the “project” aspect of this album, the album was recorded while being part of an art instillation project at Somerset House in London, while viewers could come in and watch her and her production crew recording the album.
So because of all these outside influences, this album feels very conceptual, while the music doesn’t quite have the emotional punch that I look for in a PJ Harvey album. There are still some really good songs on Hope Six, as “The Wheel” is one of the best rockers Harvey’s produced in years, maybe decades. While I also like the choir-infused nature of songs like “Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln”, though this approach does sometimes come off as a little overbearing at times. But as I’ve learned, you’re not gonna get any half-measures when it comes to PJ Harvey. She’s always gonna give you something raw and honest, and even if she doesn’t entirely pull off what she’s doing, it’s gonna be something interesting at the very least, and artists like that should not be taken for granted.
Favorite Tracks: “Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln”, “The Wheel”, “Dollar, Dollar”