PJ Harvey’s ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ and Anohni’s ‘Hopelessness’
Politics and music make strange bedfellows. Two different ways of looking at the world that, when united properly, can ignite powerful emotions and galvanise an entire community. Two weeks ago, PJ Harvey released The Hope Six Demolition Project, her most political album to date; next week, Anohni releases Hopelessness, a howl of pain and anger even more highly charged and cogent than Harvey’s bitter tales of war-ravaged villages and crippling urban blight. When polemic is made poetic it can become strong medicine. On the other hand, the nuance and ambiguity that feed creativity can be hamstrung by the black-and-white language of politics. One way or another, the marriage of these strange bedfellows will always spark controversy.
PJ Harvey is no stranger to controversy. In 1998, her off-the-cuff comments in support of fox hunting caused outrage in Britain and gave succour to supporters of the “sport” under attack in parliament at the time. When Polly Jean later was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2013, presented by the Queen at Buckingham Palace, it was less controversial but still came as a shock to her followers, many of whom consider the artist to be inherently anti-establishment. A few weeks later it was the British establishment’s turn to be annoyed when PJ curated a three-hour radio show on the BBC featuring well-known political bugbears such as John Pilger, Julian Assange and Shaker Aamer, the last British resident held in Guantanamo Bay. Rather than describe Polly Jean Harvey as anti-establishment, it’s more accurate to say she is wilfully nonconformist.
No one should be surprised that PJ Harvey’s latest album has turned out to be another contentious move. When she released the first single, and opening track, “The Community of Hope”, last month, the song aroused the ire of Washington politicians and members of the Ward 7 community, whose neighbourhood was its subject.
Here’s the highway to death and destruction,
South Capitol is its name.
The school looks like a shithole – does that look like a nice place?
Here’s the old mental institution, now the Homeland Security base.
Here’s God’s Deliverance Centre, a deli called MLK.
Harvey had toured the Washington area as part of her album research, which also took her to Kosovo and Afghanistan. In this she was accompanied by documentary photographer Seamus Murphy, who had also collaborated on her previous album, Let England Shake.
The first fruits of their collaboration for this latest album was The Hollow of the Hand, a book-length photo essay of their journey together, interspersed with poems inspired by what they saw. Murphy’s photos are stunning; Harvey’s poems, less so. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words holds true in this case. It appears she is trying to emulate the reportage nature of the images but her plain descriptions in verse often fail to take flight. Happily, PJ achieved a much more satisfying outcome on the record, successfully adapting many of those poems into song lyrics. The melodies add welcome texture and emotion to verses that felt resolutely flat on the page.
Apart from “The Community of Hope”, there are two other songs inspired by her visit to the DC area. “River Anacostia” opens with a chorus of male voices singing the old negro spiritual “Wade in the Water”, followed by a solemn tom-tom beat. Harvey’s plaintive voice describes an apocalyptic scene of pollution and decay, the foul river becoming a metaphor for global human negligence. Even the figure of Jesus seems powerless to intervene.
“Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” follows immediately. The title is a mouthful, even more so when it is sung repeatedly as the chorus. This particular lyric highlights the difficulties Harvey must have faced when marrying such deliberately unemotional poetry to her vibrant music. When I first heard the track I thought its singsong melody would be more appropriate for a children’s song. That is, until I noticed how unbelievably catchy it is. That improbable chorus is now stuck in my head forever, something the drab lyric might never have achieved on its own.
For this album, Harvey has reunited with John Parish and Flood, as well as frequent collaborator Mick Harvey. To my ears, this album is the best-sounding of her career, but the extra production polish doesn’t distract from Harvey’s passion or creativity one whit. It’s idiosyncratic and grows deeper with every listen, which is one of the hallmarks of a great album. Whether it’s another masterpiece like Let England Shake, only time will tell. I suspect Harvey herself doesn’t care. She is simply following her muse and making art that is vitally important to her, something we can only applaud.
Everybody, sing it with me now: “Oh, near the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln.”
Anohni is the “spirit name” of the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty, erstwhile leader of Antony and The Johnsons. Hegarty always identified as transgender and privately among her family and friends has been called Anohni for many years. With her latest release, she has decided to align her professional persona with her private reality.
On Friday, Anohni releases her fifth studio album, titled Hopelessness. The record is a complete transformation of her music. Gone are all traces of the stately, piano-based baroque pop that brought so much acclaim. In its place are ultra-modern electronica and dance-inflected slow grooves. Anohni was aided and abetted in her work by Brooklyn-based experimental musician and producer Oneohtrix Point Never, as well as Glaswegian DJ/producer Hudson Mohawke, the latter most famous for his work with artists such as Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Drake and Azealia Banks. Working with Oneohtrix Point Never and Mohawke revolutionised Anohni’s sound as well as her modus operandi. When I spoke with Anohni recently, she described to me how the three collaborators juggled working together between London and New York. “It was a mixture of working separately and doing it through email, and doing it together in a room,” she remembered. “We did a bit of both, honestly.”
Apart from its unconventional production approach, Hopelessness differs markedly from Anohni’s previous work in its subject matter, too. The album’s lyrics explore many of the ethical and environmental dilemmas confronting us in the world today, and their trenchant tone is a radical change from the artist’s usual romanticism. To be sure, there has often been a political subtext to Anohni’s lyrics, but their symbolism also left room for ambiguity. There can be no mistaking her intentions here. Hopelessness is frank – even brutal – in the way it meets its subjects head on. Its lyrics detail a litany of modern evils: climate change (“4 Degrees”), government surveillance (“Watch Me”), remote-controlled warfare and collateral damage (“Drone Bomb Me”, “Crisis”), capital punishment (“Execution”), the tension between masculinity and femininity (“Violent Men”), and even the moral failings of the current United States president (“Obama”).
Punishing the whistleblowers
Those who tell the truth
Do you recognise the yellow
staring back at you?
As blunt as Anohni is much of the time, she doesn’t pretend she is not part of the problem, frequently making herself complicit in the lyrics. A good example of that is the environmental holocaust song, “4 Degrees”:
I want to burn the sky
I want to burn the breeze
I want to see the animals die in the trees
Let’s go! Let’s go!
It’s only 4 degrees
By speaking in the first person and, in a sense, taking ownership of the effects of global warming, Anohni implicates herself and the listener at the same time. She admits choosing this songwriting device deliberately. “When it comes to a song like ‘Drone Bomb’ or ‘Execution’, it’s just reverse psychology,” she told me. “But with a song like ‘4 Degrees’ it is about actually taking responsibility for my part of it: that I can’t separate myself from the system that is cannibalising the Earth … especially someone taking planes and all the rest of it. But even just eating and brushing my teeth – I mean, it’s very difficult to disengage.”
“Drone Bomb Me” and “Execution” have both been written from the point of view of someone targeted by these inhumane acts and yet perversely welcoming them. The absurdity of that notion makes any justification for the acts themselves seem equally absurd.
As with PJ Harvey’s latest songs, the alluring melodies on Hopelessness help the unwieldy lyrics and unpalatable ideas insinuate themselves into your subconscious like some kind of horrific nursery rhyme. “Watch Me” features the album’s most beautiful melody, married to a creepy lyric about our seemingly irrevocable loss of privacy, with guilty-until-proven-innocent monitoring of citizens by law enforcement and security agencies.
Watch me in my hotel room
Watch my outline as I move from city to city
Watch me watching pornography
Watch me talking to my friends and my family
Anohni’s refrain of “Daddy! Daddy!” reminds me of Winston Smith’s declaration of love for Big Brother in the closing sentence of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is entirely apposite.
Anohni had a twofold purpose in making this album: one political, the other artistic. “I wanted to just do something that was really direct, that really reflected how I was feeling about things now,” she told me. “And also I really just wanted to affirm other people in their feelings ... and encourage them to speak up and to know that there were other people feeling the same way.”
Her other, equally important intention was to see how far she could push the pop/dance music envelope: “I thought of the record as a Trojan Horse, like something really seductive and pop, really pushing the boundaries of what pop could contain. How vigorous of a conversation can you actually embed into a pop song and have people still accept it?”
It has to be said, Hopelessness is a challenging listen both musically and lyrically. When you find yourself singing along to quite shocking sentiments, you realise there is something very peculiar going on. We’ve all become so inured by saturation reporting of environmental catastrophe and systemic tyranny that it’s startling when Anohni’s lyrics are still able to touch a raw nerve. The truth hurts, and so it should. As Anohni says: “I noticed with playing the record everyone thinks it is so extreme but then everyone agreed with most of the content. If it’s really so extreme then why does everyone agree with it?”
VISUAL ART HERE&NOW16 / GenYM
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, until July 16
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 30, 2016 as "Political animals". Subscribe here.