At the beginning of 2015, PJ Harvey offered us a window into her creative process. In collaboration with installation specialists Artangel, a temporary studio was erected at Somerset House, and curious fans could listen and watch through one-way glazing as she recorded the follow-up to 2011’s Let England Shake. It was a landmark initiative, made even more remarkable by the fact it offered rare access to a notoriously private artist. As Harvey explained in the exhibition pamphlet, “I’m not sure how it’ll affect us… But what I do know is that whenever I feel scared it’s usually a good sign, because it means that I’m doing something I haven’t done before.”
The resulting record takes its title from HOPE XI, a US urban renewal scheme set up to create mixed-income developments from dilapidated public housing projects, but that has since been criticised for leaving a deficit in social housing. This project – unflatteringly referenced in album opener ‘The Community Of Hope’ – sets the framework for a record that deals with ideas of displacement and poverty.
Inspired by trips to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington D.C., songs offer vivid snapshots of all three locations. On ‘The Ministry Of Defence’, Harvey guides us through the ruined headquarters in Kabul, sifting through debris to a warning “scratched in the wall in biro pen: ‘This is how the world will end.’” Its disturbing imagery is mirrored in the main musical motif of a doomy, repeated guitar chord, interspersed with ominous pauses and Harvey’s bluesy vocals.
Blues figures heavily throughout the album, though most explicitly on ‘The Ministry Of Social Affairs’. The song begins with a vintage sample – and it remains underneath the first verse, jarring with the main melody – before its central refrain is co-opted by blank-eyed male voices at the climax, almost buried beneath the squalling sax solo.The roots of this almost-discordant sampling technique can be traced back to Let England Shake (see ‘Written on the Forehead’ and ‘This Glorious Land’), as can Harvey’s increasingly politicised outlook. However, the wraith-like airiness that clung to the last LP has been replaced by melodies that feel more urgent, and that are unafraid to embrace dissonance.
Not only does Harvey break new ground with this more-direct musical approach, she adds weight to the album’s overriding message. Whether it’s the young boy stopping traffic to beg for money in ‘Dollar, Dollar’, the 28,000 missing children mourned during ‘The Wheel’, or the refugees displaced by conflict in ‘A Line In The Sand’, it’s the most vulnerable members of society who ultimately suffer most at the hands of these unfeeling – or downright tyrannous – regimes. And as Harvey sings on the latter track, “Enough is enough.”