May 2016

Arts & Letters

In distress

By Anwen Crawford

Beautiful suffering in PJ Harvey’s ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ and Anohni’s ‘Hopelessness’

English singer-songwriter Polly Jean Harvey, known professionally as PJ Harvey, released her first album, Dry, in 1992. Harvey’s rock songs, formed around her rasping electric guitar lines, bore a superficial resemblance to the then-dominant grunge style. Kurt Cobain admired her, as did his wife, Courtney Love. Harvey never publicly identified as a feminist (unlike the controversial Love), but her songs detailed sexual and emotional humiliations – often coloured by a sardonic, defensive humour – that connected powerfully with many female listeners. ‘Dress’, ‘Hair’, ‘Happy and Bleeding’ – the curt titles alone give a sense of the musical universe that Harvey was creating at the time.

Harvey has also, at her best, sounded out of time. Her formative blues influences (Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker) were most recognisable on her early albums (including 1993’s Rid of Me and 1995’s To Bring You My Love), and she has subsequently tried her hand at electronica (Is This Desire?, 1998) and bold, sensuous pop (Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, 2000). Irrespective of genre, her most enthralling work has felt, as great blues does, both corporeal and otherworldly. Her voice has a keening edge – particularly in the upper register – that she has exploited to great effect, never more so than on her extraordinary 2007 album White Chalk, a suite of malefic lullabies performed on piano and zither.

White Chalk was followed in 2011 by Let England Shake, a conceptually ambitious recording that traced a century’s worth of British involvement in global military conflicts, from Gallipoli to present-day Afghanistan. Harvey pushed her voice out over the songs’ arrangements like a wraith roaming the decades, but she interpolated other voices too, both lyrical and musical, so that the album became a bricolage of anti-war feeling. Let England Shake was Harvey’s first overtly political record (though her uncompromising accounts of gender relations had been, in their own way, a form of protest), and it was showered with praise – perhaps a little too much praise. In 2011 Harvey became the only artist to have received the Mercury Prize twice, and in 2013 she was given an MBE for services to music.

Now comes The Hope Six Demolition Project, Harvey’s ninth studio album, which extends her political commentary. The album is named after HOPE VI, a US government housing policy that aims to replace high-density public housing projects with low-rise, mixed-income residencies in various cities. One of these cities is Washington, DC, the setting for the album’s first song, ‘The Community of Hope’.

The opening moments are a microcosm of the record’s weaknesses. “Here’s the Hope Six Demolition Project / Stretching down to Benning Road,” sings Harvey. She shoehorns the title phrase of the album into a rhythm – a listless 4/4 shuffle – that won’t quite accommodate it. Melodic instruments (electric guitar, piano) converge in a way that sounds muddy and indistinct. “A well-known pathway of death,” Harvey continues. “At least that’s what I’m told.”

The song’s genesis lies in a collaboration between Harvey and Seamus Murphy, a photographer and filmmaker who also directed several promotional videos for Let England Shake. Between 2011 and 2014 they travelled to Washington, Kosovo and Afghanistan, gathering material that formed the basis of The Hollow of the Hand, a poetry collection written by Harvey and illustrated by Murphy, published last year. Those same excursions have now informed Harvey’s album. Local journalist Paul Schwartzman drove the pair around Washington; in a recent article for the Washington Post, Schwartzman admitted that he had no idea, at the time, who Harvey was. “I could show them the other Washington,” writes Schwartzman, who claims to have spent “many days roaming the city’s poor and working-class neighbourhoods”.

Many days! Here lies the heart of the problem. ‘The Community of Hope’ – and the album as a whole – aspires to the mettle of exemplary journalism, cool of head yet fierce in spirit, and the ethical difficulties that Harvey has given herself as a songwriter are those confronted by journalists: the difficulties of power and representation. Who has ownership of a story, the person who tells it or the person who has lived it? “They’re gonna put a Walmart here,” repeats Harvey, at the end of the song. To which one might reply: But what if there’s nowhere else to shop?

Over and again, the album founders in the gap between Harvey’s research (or lack of it) and the results. The songs string together observational moments: “a black man in overalls” who empties garbage cans (‘Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln’), a woman in a wheelchair “with a Redskins cap on backwards” (‘Medicinals’), and “the broken glass” and “syringes” of an abandoned building (‘The Ministry of Defence’). But these moments don’t coalesce into a sustained viewpoint. All we have are passing glances from a passenger seat window.

Worse, the accompanying videos for ‘The Wheel’ and ‘The Community of Hope’ (both directed by Murphy) compound the effects of this remoteness. The former was filmed in Kosovo and is Eastern Europe by rote: concrete buildings, ageing peasants, a fug of post-Communist decrepitude. The latter was ostensibly shot in Washington but folds in scenes from New York (the Statue of Liberty is rather a giveaway), as if the two cities and their complex demographies were interchangeable, which perhaps they are, to foreign visitors.

Some of these faults might have been remedied, to a degree, had the music been bold, pushing the listener – and the performers – towards a confrontation with the limits of their own sympathies. There are hints of what might have been. The eldritch air that has proved so stirring for Harvey before is revisited on ‘A Line in the Sand’, while a wailing saxophone rudely overtakes ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’, sounding like the disorder that the lyric (“A million beggars’ silhouettes”) fails to convey. ‘River Anacostia’, named after the river that flows through Washington, incorporates parts from the African-American spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’, with a choir backing Harvey. This is the most effective musical gesture on the album and the most questionable, for what right has Harvey to a song so closely connected with the sufferings of slavery? She has only that right of daring by which an artist might leap beyond the bounds of her personal experience. Such daring has rarely failed Harvey on her previous albums, where she has played a rampaging she-monster, a frightened soldier in the trenches, and many characters besides. Her imagination is tremendous and now she has hobbled it, and her songs.

And so to Anohni, another Englishwoman tackling issues of global concern on her new album, Hopelessness. Anohni is the bandleader of Antony and the Johnsons, a New York–based ensemble that has recorded four studio albums, winning the Mercury Prize for the intensely melancholic I Am a Bird Now (2005). The band was named in memory of transgender activist Marsha P Johnson, and Anohni has longstanding links with the New York alternative performance scene. Formerly known as Antony, Anohni now publicly identifies as a transgender woman – Hopelessness marks her first recording under this name.

This is also Anohni’s first solo album, though Hopelessness has been made with significant contribution from two leading figures in contemporary electronic music: the Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke and the American musician Oneohtrix Point Never. Where Antony and the Johnsons have specialised in a classically inflected sound (grand piano, regal tempos), Anohni and her new collaborators have fashioned something more à la mode. Synthesisers glimmer and processed drums clap out the time. The atmosphere is part video game, part threnody for a dying planet.

Last December, Anohni previewed her album with a song called ‘4 Degrees’, released to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. If anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, climate scientists predict that the likely temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius by this century’s end will result in the extinction of one in six species. “And all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures,” sings Anohni, “I wanna see them burn / It’s only 4 degrees.” There is real pathos in the folkloric, almost childlike image of “those tiny creatures”, trapped inside the expression of a rapacious and equally childlike will. “Giving myself a good hard look,” wrote Anohni, in a note accompanying the song’s release.

Anohni has a singing voice for which the word “tremulous” might have been invented. Her vibrato is so strong that she sounds forever in danger of being wobbled into a puddle of tears, and this presents a problem on an album that aims to hold both artist and listener to account for their complacencies. ‘4 Degrees’ is effective because the brutality of the lyric pulls against the loveliness of the delivery, and ‘Watch Me’, which follows, is nearly as potent: a torch song addressed to an omniscient “Daddy” of digital surveillance (“I know you love me / ’Cause you’re always watching me”).

The rest of Hopelessness is less powerful. Subjects range from capital punishment (‘Execution’) to the alienation of humanity from the natural world (‘Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth’) to personal heartbreak (‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’, which sounds out of place on an album otherwise so invested in public politics). But the music cushions and comforts. Crisis becomes a kind of luxury – and maybe for some of us it is.

In early March, Anohni released the second single from Hopelessness, ‘Drone Bomb Me’, which opens the record. She sings from the perspective of a young Afghani girl who longs to join her family in death. The accompanying video was styled by Givenchy’s creative director, Riccardo Tisci, and stars the English supermodel Naomi Campbell. Campbell mouths the words to the song (“Drone bomb me / Blow me from the mountains”) with tears running down her face, in what appears to be genuine distress, but whose distress does she signify? Her own? The listener’s? The songwriter’s? The subject’s? A black woman performs words written by a white woman about a brown girl. If there is a moral equation at work here, then it is difficult to figure out. Are we all equal, all alike? In our humanity, surely, but not in our suffering, which is specific, and weighted to our material circumstances. The song is bold, but the video, in its easy beauty, is an insult.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

Anohni. Photograph by Alice O’Malley

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