Musings of world disorder

If her last album, 2011's Let England Shake, grapples with her motherland's complicated role in the 20th century's conflicts from Iraq to the Gallipoli Campaign, then The Hope Six Demolition Project is PJ Harvey's unsentimental lensing of the current world disorder.

It is her first-hand reportage on her sojourns to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C., accompanied by photographer and film-maker Seamus Murphy, which resulted in a poetry collection as well as this album.

Already, the rousing lead single, The Community Of Hope - named after Hope VI, the controversial plan by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to convert some of the country's worst public-housing projects into mixed-income developments - has ruffled feathers.

Belying the lyrics are a deceptively hopeful title and an unusual uplifting tone, driven by scruffy drums, droning guitars and a gospel choir.

This is why Harvey is essential - a musician who pricks nerves even as she scoops up awards. Hers is a gift aligning precise lyricism and melody, coolly observant and more devastating because of it.

Listen to The Ministry Of Defence, a jeremiad underpinned by staccato electric riffs, as she lists a litany of items in an abandoned building in Afghanistan.



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It starts familiar enough, with a description of graffiti, fizzy drinks, cans and magazines, before she zeroes in on unsettling details: "a white jawbone/syringes, razors/a plastic spoon/human hair".

The slow-drip Chinese torture proceeds with A Line In The Sand, another jaw-dropping testimony, but this time, told from the point of view of a worker in a refugee camp.

Harvey, adopting the eerie, high-pitched voice she adopted in her ghostly 2007 album, White Chalk, describes the scenes of people killing one another over air-dropped sustenance, over skronky percussion and a Greek chorus. It is catchy and alienating.

When Harvey goes moody and soulful, the past and the present meld and the listener is implicated.

She weaves the spiritual Wade In The Water, adopted as the anthem of many civil rights marches, into her modern diatribe River Anacostia, the polluted waterway in Washington D.C., murmuring, "God's gonna trouble the water".

Such is her forte: She rides the knife's edge between hope and hopelessness, light and the abyss, taking the listener to somewhere more enlightened, even if one is not sure she knows where she is going.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Musings of world disorder'. Subscribe