“I took a plane to a foreign land, and said ‘I’ll write down what I find’” sings PJ Harvey on ‘The Orange Monkey’. In the videos that accompany her ninth album, drawing on trips to Washington DC, Kosovo and Afghanistan made with war photographer Seamus Murphy, you can see her doing just that: picking her way delicately among a ruined house in Kosovo, picking up abandoned photographs. The resulting songs, recorded in front of an audience at Somerset House last year (Harvey the observer, in turn allowing herself to be observed), strive for a cool distance, fitting to the self-appointed role of ‘official war musician’ she assumed on 2011’s ‘Let England Shake’.
Music and journalism are, of course, not natural bedfellows, and Harvey’s attempt to create a hybrid form has already run into trouble. Her dispassionate, probably ironic appropriation of the words of The Washington Post’s Paul Schwartzman as he drove her around Ward 7, the low-income area of Washington that is the scene for the gutsy, Patti Smith-ish ‘The Community of Hope’, was interpreted by local politicians and community activists as being in Harvey’s own voice: “OK, now this is just drug town / Just zombies but that’s just life”. A member of the former mayor’s team termed her “the Piers Morgan of pop music”: both, as he saw it, sneery, half-informed Limeys shooting their mouth off about things they don’t know anything about.
You can understand their confusion: we can only just infer from her “at least, that’s what I’m told” and the deadpan way she delivers the line “the school just looks like a shit hole” that she isn’t endorsing these views. The song, which sounds like an impassioned protest rocker but attempts something more complex, is not the only time here that Harvey’s determination to remain detached feels hampering.
Her reluctance to offer solutions or rallying cries makes sense – pure observation feels more honest and safer in a difficult world. But as with 2015’s The Hollow of the Hand – the book of poems and photographs born of the same collaboration with Murphy – often the context needed for full meaning can only be gleaned from Google. To attend ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’’s Royal Festival Hall launch last October and to hear Murphy fill in the background stories illuminated what was oblique, making it specific and powerful. Perhaps you have to see the album, like Björk’s ‘Biophilia’ from 2011, as part of a bigger work – there’s still a full-length film to come – but alone, it seems to fall between the stools of art and journalism. The album’s lyric booklet is very bare, offering little explanation.
Sometimes this spare approach works, sometimes not. The rootsy marching song of ‘Medicinals’ seems to reference the history of Native American suffering and oppression, playing the image of the indigenous healing herbs lurking beneath the gravel of the National Mall, against the figure of a woman in a Redskins cap, drinking from a bottle in a paper bag: “a new painkiller for the native people”. It feels a little too neat and cute. Much better is the simplicity of the impression in the handclappy blues-storm of ‘The Wheel’, where the sight of children flinging in and out of view on a fairground ride in Kosovo puts Harvey in mind of the disappeared of the Balkan wars, and the cycle of retribution. It’s the rawest, strongest song, along with ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ ghost-Elvis swagger, but much of the album, though bluesier and meatier and unsettlingly infectious, doesn’t stray hugely far from the sound of ‘Let England Shake’, with that slightly marching-song feel and her band’s ragged male backing vocals. It feels like we should applaud Harvey just for tackling such issues, but when the subjects are drawn from real life, art about suffering and poverty tends to raise the question of who benefits – as Harvey sang back in 1996 on ‘Civil War Correspondent’, “words can’t save life”. Without the factual, informative aspect of journalism, or a clear stance, the purpose of these songs feels muddied.
For the most part, though, Harvey’s difficult dance avoids the trap of exploitation. The only song that feels uncomfortable in that sense is ‘Chain of Keys’, which recounts Harvey’s encounter with an old Kosovan woman who keeps the keys of her neighbour’s abandoned houses on a chain. “Imagine what her eyes have seen / We ask but she won’t let us in” sings Harvey; it’s unclear whether the woman won’t let them into her house or her memories, but you can’t help but wonder if she didn’t just want them to go away. You certainly get little sense of the woman as a person, and modern communication means that the people at the sharp end of geopolitics tell their own stories in their own voices far more often, rather than just serving as emotive images.
More intriguing is ‘A Line in the Sand’, which uses the reported-speech trick of ‘The Community of Hope’ to clearer effect as someone – an aid worker? A soldier? – recounts their experiences working in a refugee camp. The song’s amiable jauntiness, brass and variophon blarting and wheezing away, is unsettling, as is Harvey’s sing-song falsetto (“What we did, why we did it? I make no excuse – we got things wrong but I believe we also did some good”) is deeply unsettling. The ironic distance raises possibilities – is this what evil sounds like when it talks? Or good people making the best of an impossible situation? – but gives no answers. Perhaps the title is an allusion to the problems caused by the drawing of post-colonial borders. Perhaps not.
It seems significant that the album ends with ‘Dollar, Dollar’, the song that most suggests Harvey’s own discomfort with her role (in ‘The Guest Room’, a poem in The Hollow of the Hand, she fretted “I hope we know when to leave”) and perhaps a feeling of western complicity. As she is driven through Kabul on her observing mission, a boy approaches the car to beg for money. The song has a dreamy, tragic air, tentative and unsure, Harvey sounding haunted as she sings, “I can’t look through or past… all my words get swallowed”. Again, words aren’t enough. She is the one now observed, stuck behind glass, and her choice of “you” seems significant in the line “I turn to you and ask for something we can offer”. What can we offer? It’s one of the many unanswered questions raised: Can artists remain impartial? Can they help? Should they try? Was this project a ‘success’? Where can we find hope, or is it demolished? There aren’t any easy answers in PJ’s notebook.