Among the major names in contemporary British culture, there is certainly Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ Harvey. Nowadays, critics regard her as a star, famous for her music — she writes, sings and composes — and yet she could be defined as a total artist, given the range of her interests and the quality of her eclecticism. She is a writer and a poet, a painter, and a drawer. But she also has experience playing in films (as with Hal Hartley), and working on the radio as guest editor (BBC Radio 4), and who knows what else she may be capable of doing.
In light of this reasoning, I would like to suggest here a possibility to consider PJ Harvey as a kind of “contemporary classic,” a formula that might work for outlining a voice able to narrate the present through a force so vivid to make it a model.
An enchanted wanderer
All this — and much more — is pretty clear by listening to her latest work, The Hope Six Demolition Project, released last year. One may read it as a sort of concept album about the theme of travel as personal discovery as well as political observation of an idea of the world. Thereby, something different after Let England Shake, but it is also — for the umpteenth time — a proof of continuity in her regeneration in style and themes as guidance. The work comes out from a series of her journeys between Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. More specifically, the American leg gave her the title: Hope VI is a plan conceived by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to revitalize some public housing projects in different cities throughout the country.
Listening to the album’s tracks, one can detect how in each of them there is a tendency toward a certain choral quality (in the writing and musical arrangements). These songs tell us about detestable characters (the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Social Affairs), near and far communities (The Community of Hope, The Orange Monkey) and much more. Topics such as war, poverty, decay and violence are dominant. And the logic behind all this, namely the U.S. and the West as its origin, as well as its consequences — such as Afghanistan and Kosovo, territories where one can see the effects — is present without being didactic.
At this point one might say, we already know that. And yes, maybe that’s true. But it is interesting to note that this work signals a pivotal phase in the artist’s itinerary, her direct approach to political questions. In so doing, PJ Harvey is faithful to her past, since she has never been a traditional protest singer. Also, here there is no rhetoric, neither slogan nor didacticism. On the contrary, everything seems shaped by her lyrical and narrative genius and, if one agrees, through the figure of traveler she incarnated while doing this project. And isn’t travel literature one of the quintessential classical genres?
The writing is the difference
PJ Harvey wrote the songs of The Hope Six Demolition Project during journeys she undertook with the Irish photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy, between 2011 and 2014. From these experiences we know another fruit of her art, her first poetry book, The Hollow of the Hand (2015). In light of this publication, it is possible to find articles with references to the correlation between her songs and poems. They have the same source and some shared themes — compared to the album, the book makes “visible” her travels, through sections based on the countries the two artists visited and features photographs by Murphy.
When asked about this correlation, PJ Harvey has often indicated a meaningful distinction to take into account, the different writing processes in each work. Nonetheless, in reading her lyrics, one cannot but notice compositions identical to poems, like The Orange Monkey. Or slight re-elaborations such as Chain of Keys and Dollar Dollar (The Glass in her book). Or many other forms of similarity. Now, what does that mean? Certainly, it is not a negation of what the artist says. Her poems are poems; we must read them as such. Likewise, her songs are songs; we must listen to them with and through their musical presence. Here, what it does seem interesting to me is a possible usage of the book as a critical instrument to better comprehend the literary qualities of the artist’s “writing-in-music,” by emphasizing a “modus operandi.”
In The Hollow of the Hand, the “lyrical self” is that of a contemporary witness observing several appearances and disappearances of the Other, and her album adds an amplification or echo to this narrative. Also: mystery and realism, watched or crossed, take the form of objective correlatives that the artist articulates through a tight rhythm, a combination of elements through which one can imagine some of her possible inspiration coming from T. S. Eliot and H. Pinter. This perception may suggest a preference for a classic modernism, the same taste one may find in her music. Thereby, if I had to describe this taste, I would say that it looks like a sort of maniac attention to get a formal clarity in a composition, as the best way to allude to what, in any situation, one cannot “fix.”
And once transcribed in music, this sensation remains.
Fragments for a political discourse
At her concert in Milan in 2016, the stage setting for The Hope Six Demolition Project — Ian Rickson is the director, Jeremy Herbert is the designer — is a quasi-brutalist background, with a wall falling in the end. The band enters the stage through a sort of military march, and one can note a lot of talents along with the artist, people such as John Perish, her musical “soulmate,” or new presences like the Italian Enrico Gabrielli (The Winstons, Calibro 35).
Regarding the performance, many reviewers wrote about it mentioning its similarity to a theatrical staging, in a much more direct way than we used to see on her previous tours. Nonetheless, it seems there was no interest in exploring this theme. On stage, the action leaves nothing to chance, allowing us to read the staging as an addendum to the project-discourse. It starts from the symbolism of the wall, with all its meanings and nuances referable to the themes of the album: war, poverty, bad politics — a leitmotif from East to West — and also, possible forms of resistance to that.
On such a scene, the artist keeps on playing with some of her long-standing collaborators, whose list contemplates new entries — other musicians, other men. This outcome unfolds something resembling a chorus made out of males, but where the guidance is female. It is something that perhaps stresses PJ Harvey’s “search for extremes,” and thereby all the feminist implications in this interest. However, taking into account the idea of the performance as theatre, one cannot but look at the gender disparity on stage as a reflection of a broader gender gap rooted in many of the problems and disasters narrated in The Hope Six Demolition Project.
Lastly, it is worth highlighting the “emotional distance” the artist tends to convey between herself and her public, with very few exceptions. It seems to be something implicit in her attention to the look as a disguise; it seems to be something necessary in her relation to the songs of this album. As though she is suggesting that this is the only way to make the images resonate.