Polly Jean Harvey established herself as a radical artist with her debut album, “Dry,” an unflinching look at femininity that asserted its singular vision with a dissonant opening chord. Since then, she’s been one of rock’s most prolific creators, establishing a discography that’s aesthetically adventurous while being uniquely hers. With 2011’s “Let England Shake,” she shifted her focus from the interior to the exterior, taking on the decline of her home country and the dreary atmosphere promised by constant war.
Harvey’s ninth album, “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” continues her more outwardly political trend; she wrote it after traveling to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C. (“I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil, and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with,” she said in a release accompanying the album.) “Hope” shows how Harvey sees the personal and the political as one, although the portraits she paints find their politics in careful details. One boy fools starlings into thinking he’s feeding them “just to watch them jump” in “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln,” which shifts between fever-dream verses and a chorus that resembles a Dopplered anthem. The droning “Dollar, Dollar,” meanwhile, accents its story about a young beggar with “a face pock-marked and hollow” by pairing a languorous saxophone solo with recordings of traffic.
Harvey’s ability to blend folk music’s ideals — chanted choruses, verses with enough room to let full stories spill out — with rock’s bluster has been one of her strengths since the days of “Dry,” and on “Hope,” the occasional sax bleat or violin squall adds to the chaotic mood. “The Ministry of Defence” uses horror movie-worthy riffing to accentuate its portrait of diminished bureaucracy; “The Wheel” is an amped-up dirge, its imagery of children on an amusement-park ride made grim by its churning guitars and chorus of chanted statistics. “The Hope Six Demolition Project” might derive its title from a Housing and Urban Development program designed to “transform public housing,” but the bleak picture Harvey portrays on this stunning album gives that title a second, and more ominous, meaning.
ESSENTIAL “The Ministry of Defence”Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.