PJ HARVEY – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island): She’ll never again make anything as stunning as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea or even To Give You My Love—those were songs by a younger woman still figuring out the kinks and rough edges of love and her peculiar sexuality—and has instead opted for social commentary I should be raising my left fist in allegiance with. But I don’t. I chalked up the raves UK critics and fans alike gave Let England Shake (and the more muted though respectable response from the US press) to a quintessential Britishness I couldn’t understand without being British myself. Curiously, though, The Hope Six Demolition Project is supposed to be more universal—investigating “how the world will end,” from Washington DC’s Ward 7 to Afghanistan to Kosovo, describing at a distance the hellholes people inhabit. In that way you can see how she’s trying to connect how the poor in the Third World compares to that of the First. But the album feels more like a lecture from someone whose church group just spent the summer building houses in Guatemala than an informative tour from someone who truly knows the inside workings of a DC ghetto or bombed-out Kosovan village.
Harvey often has a chorus singing backup with her, as though her message were not some plea from a single person, but from a conscious collective. But what’s striking is how ridiculous those pleas sound. I’m not so cynical as to accuse Harvey of trendy humanitarianism or thumb my nose at sentiments that she might not herself understand, but it reiterates what many have feared for decades. Rock is no longer a force for social change. It doesn’t matter how catchy any of her songs are. A rock album isn’t the medium to persuade people on issues decades in the making. Songs that describe any sort of trauma best come from people who have lived through them, or at least have a lifetime of witnessing them. It’s a reason Angaleena Presley’s small town songs of heroin addicts and alcoholics are so moving, why Kendrick Lamar’s tales from the hood are more convincing than if they came from Michael Stipe, and why we cringe when Bono in his designer sunglasses asks us if the children know it’s Christmas. Yes, the heart’s in the right place. But there’s a reason Chumbawamba called their debut Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records. B PLUS (***)