Having spent the entirety of my adulthood surrounded by rockers and journos, here’s what I can tell you. Both professions are populated by sensitive observers who translate their encounters into surrogate encounters. These people are skeptical optimists who work hard for the public’s enlightenment, and lately, because their respective industries are going to hell, they’re mostly paid in glory. But they’re still convinced that they’re always telling the truth, and they cringe when you call it “content.”
All of that might help us get a better hold on “The Hope Six Demolition Project” by PJ Harvey, a new rock-and-roll travelogue about the British singer’s recent journeys to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington D.C. It’s an album filled with easy melodies and densely layered politics in which Harvey refuses to play the archetypal protest singer. Instead of strapping on her do-right rock-star boots, she’s merely a wandering eyeball, searching for moments of humanity on a planet impoverished by war.
The album had people here in the District talking early with its lead single, “Community of Hope,” a tune Harvey wrote after Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman unwittingly gave her a “windshield tour” of Southeast D.C. back in 2014. Community leaders were galled by lyrics that characterized Ward 7 as a “drug town” filled with “zombies,” but it turns out that Harvey had simply transcribed Schwartzman’s chit-chat from the driver’s seat and set it to melody, similar to how a journalist wedges a quote into a story.
Now that the rest of the album is out there, it’s generating similarly anxious babble. Most critics seem to like how the music sounds while condemning a lot of what it says. They hear one of the world’s most commanding vocalists reporting from a misguided poverty tour — a dissonance that can only be reconciled with reflexive finger-wagging or deeper listening.
Try the latter and you’ll find that “Community of Hope” has a lightness last heard on Harvey’s standout 2000 album “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.” The lyrics, however, are heavy and blunt. In the context of the album, Harvey is shaming Federal Washington for its global warmongering while it continues to neglect those who live directly in the shadow of the Capitol dome — the stuff of the greatest Fugazi songs. The tune ends with Harvey repeatedly singing, “They’re gonna put a Walmart here,” adding vibrato as she approaches the finale.
There’s a profound awkwardness to singing these stiff lyrics with such urgency, which ends up being one of the central devices of this album. There’s a consistent incongruity between eyewitness lyrical information and abstract musical feel.
With “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln,” Harvey sings emotively about a tourist-kid playing near a snack bar as if she’s reading a listless journal entry penned on the Mall. Later, alongside the moaning horns and nervous hand-claps of “The Wheel,” Harvey sings about the thousands of children who have disappeared in wars overseas.
This is dispassionate observation sung with heaps of passion, and if that makes you uncomfy, it might have something to do with the rigid expectations we set for politically engaged artists. We demand that our heroes speak up, denounce the bad guys, prescribe solutions, get involved. Harvey just watches, writes it down and sings it back.
In that sense, maybe “The Hope Six Demolition Project” isn’t a salvo against poverty and warfare so much as an investigation into how society’s most troubling stories are told to a global audience. Some feel that Harvey’s new songs exploit their subjects more than they humanize them. Would they feel the same way if they read these lyrics in a reported news story?
Yes, art and journalism are different beasts, but despite modern journalism’s functioning myth of pure objectivity, all news is aestheticized to some degree. (The writer David Shields swan-dives into this disparity in his recent book, “War Is Beautiful,” a critique of 21st-century combat photography.) Harvey seems to be exploring that idea, here. She’s going places in hopes of seeing things — staying out of it, but reporting the truth as she experienced it, the way a journalist would.
For the rest of us, her intentions shouldn’t matter so much, anyway. Like journalism, art can only really be measured by how you decide to live your life after you encounter it.