Grappling With P.J. Harvey’s Windshield Tour Of My City

You’ve probably heard about P.J. Harvey’s new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project.  If you live in D.C., as I do, and haven’t paid attention, you may not know that over the past two decades she’s created at least two of the best albums in the history of rock’n’roll.  Yeah, a little obscure on this side of the pond, but a major artist. Her drive-by songwriting about some of Washington’s bleakest neighborhoods has caused a bit of a stir, and we admit that, based only on one of the early songs released, “The Community of Hope,” we were concerned.  Now that the entire album’s out in full, it’s easier to understand, and admire.  And yes, The Hope Six Demolition Project ranks with those two aforementioned masterpieces, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000) and Let England Shake (2011).

In this morning’s Washington Post, Chris Richards does a nice job of defining Harvey’s work as observational journalism.  On at least those songs emanating from a trip here in 2014, Polly’s artistic process seems to have been opening her eyes and her notebook, recording what she saw, and in a reportorial fashion, putting it to music.  And what she saw and reports on was, if not original — many artists, not to mention journalists and propagandists, have made comment on the disparities between Washington’s power and wealth and our disastrously neglected neighborhoods —  then it’s at least heartfelt and unique to her sensibility.  She serves up an unflattering slice of the city I live in, it may come from a “windshield tour”narrated by a D.C. reporter who didn’t even know the slight woman in the backseat of his car was one of the world’s most important rock stars, but because of her sensibility, she serves it up as art.  And make no mistake about it, it may be tonally flat, but it is art, and put your fears aside, it is real rock’n’roll.

Musically, this is pretty similar to Let England Shake, her award-winning album that focused on, of all things, the consequences of World War I on Britain.  Yeah, she’s never been content with “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” There’s the same martial drumming, the Greek chorus adding folk textures to her and John Parish’s guitar.  It is beautiful music, a complex and tonally gorgeous collection of songs.

And the thing you have to realize, also, is that The Hope Six Demonstration Project is an art project within an art project.  P.J. Harvey traveled with photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy to Kosovo and Afghanistan, as well as Anacostia and Ward 7 here in D.C., emerging not only with this album, but also a series of films (Murphy), and a book of photography (Murphy) and poetry (Harvey), entitled The Hollow Of The Hand.  And not only did this evolve into her new album, she recorded the album in a studio under observation, with fans able to purchase tickets to watch the creative process unspool.  This may seem like she simply spilled her notebook onto vinyl, but Harvey’s not an artist to do things simply.

We admire and empathize with what Harvey’s tried to pull off here, mostly successfully.  Yes, she was a “poverty tourist” when she came to Ward 7 D.C.  But at least she came.  She saw it from behind the safety of a windshield, but at least she came.  And when she adds the spiritual “Wade In The Water” to her take on the filthy Anacostia River, it’s powerful.  And when she captures the ironic poetry of liberal dreams cratering by the government having to destroy what HUD called Hope Six housing in order to improve the lives of poor people here, she’s merely revealing she has a very good ear.  (“The Hope Six Demolition Project” is an irresistible string of words, but you had to be there, as she was, to capture it.) And when she creates an album this beautiful, and this powerful, she’s revealing, once again, that Polly Jean Harvey is one of the very few artists in 2016 using rock’n’roll to grapple with the world at this level.

One Response to “Grappling With P.J. Harvey’s Windshield Tour Of My City”

  1. […] interconnected set of observations from her visits to Washington and Kosovo.  Widely criticized, including, perhaps, here, the put down was that she had taken a “windshield tour” of DC’s poorest […]

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