Polly Jean Harvey’s biggest strength is her restlessness: She’s been an abrasive punk, a wailing blues siren, eerie glitch-pop sorceress, and solo pianist. Executing each with such ease, the chameleon makes every turn sound exactly like what she should be doing.
On her latest, The Hope Six Demolition Project, she’s a folk-rocker ruminating about poverty, war and imperialism. The album, conceived in collaboration Irish war photographer Seamus Murphy and co-produced by Flood, follows 2011’s Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake, a similar folk-rock album about war and imperialism that was also co-produced with Flood.
While Hope Six is a sequel of sorts,PJ Harvey always writes and sings with the same ecstatic dread, and dreadful ecstasy, of a woman in the process of turning herself inside out — and who plans to start turning everything else inside out.
Her first album, Dry — technically the product not of a solo artist, but of a trio called PJ Harvey — was a raw, gnarled collection of songs, heavy on viscera and guitar, that shoved you as uncomfortably close to Harvey’s inflamed psyche as the cover art did to her chapped lips.
On her major-label follow-up, Rid of Me, legendary engineer Steve Albini helped keep a new batch of songs as raw and bloody as possible — just listen to the thrumming build of the title track. By the time Harvey went solo in 1994 — though she’d frequently return to collaborate with John Parish — this roiling, queasy sound had become her own.
A year later, in the studio with trip-hop sculptor Flood, she dove into the dark blues that had lapped at Rid of Me‘s edges to make the stately and polished To Bring You My Love. These days, some might say the album is nothing more than an NPR-pleasing English-blues album embellished by an architect of ’90s-era U2. Harvey never had a bigger U.S. hit than “Down by the Water,” a genuine rock-radio earworm. But it’s hard to actually listen to “Down by the Water” and call it a low point. The song’s dark singsong swirl isn’t any less riveting than the raw howl Albini captured. And on To Bring You MyLove‘s crawling electric-blues title track — as full a genuflection to her rock elders as she’s ever made — Harvey sounds possessed and on the verge of summoning something she can’t control.
Flood’s second album with Harvey, 1998’s Is This Desire?, has the for-better-or-worse reputation of a sudden move to left field — it’s a hazy, hissing electroscape that replaces Harvey’s gritty blues phrasing with icy, gnomic mumbling, like an English-bred Bjork. But Desire is also a continuation of To Bring You My Love, as Harvey tunnels into the nauseous sound of “Down by the Water” while her guitar-heroine trappings fall away. If Flood’s production wrapped awkwardly at times around Harvey’s blues album, it’s a snug fit for Desire’s oblique electro pop.
The unlikely diptych of Love and Desire points to her current work. Eighteen years later, Harvey’s reconnected with Flood; the similarities between Hope Six and Let England Shake are much clearer than their differences. The ghostly folk-rock jangle Harvey developed on Let England Shake returns, as so does the 2012 album’s lyrical strategy. (Let England Shake was disguised as a WW I album, but its dreamy carnage slipped between wars and decades the same way Hope Six slips between Washington, D.C. and Kosovo.)
While the two albums are artistically aligned, Harvey’s style hasn’t remained static. “The Ministry of Defence” boasts a fiery new guitar sound while a choir adds muscle to “The Wheel”‘s propulsive rumble. Harvey’s sound has been refined, not transformed.
It can be an alarming thought: A PJ Harvey album that sounds like the last PJ Harvey album. Even 4-Track Demos, the post-Rid of Me release of Harvey’s self-recorded bedroom demos, doesn’t sound much like the seething, buzzing Albini versions. Uh Huh Her, 2004’s similarly self-recorded return to early-career punk form, trades the old harshness for a wooly garage stomp. But with this latest pair of albums, Harvey’s begun to settle into something — not out of exhaustion or habit but because, for the moment, it works.
The song’s crossed currents — guitar, piano, organ and muffled, squawking horns — play in parallel to Harvey’s lyrics, which are simultaneously about the past and future, us and them. Some of the songs take place in Kosovo, others in the D.C. projects, and some in the corridors of power; throughout, you’re not necessarily certain which place you’re in.
On the surface, Harvey’s last two albums are her most formal and mannered — they have historical subjects, they name countries and battles and the United Nations. The anthem, “The Community of Hope,” takes its lyrics from things PJ Harvey’s D.C. tour guide said to her. (Chorus: “They’re gonna put a Walmart here,” which the Washington Post has since reported they are not.)
Harvey’s queasy tension is still there and, of course, the blood and fire in her voice is hardly unsuited to her new subject. Harvey’s images are as visceral and as personal as the obscure purgations of Dry and Rid of Me. Taken as a whole, it’s all recognizably the work of the same artist — now turned so far inside out she’s become someone else.