PJ Harvey’s ninth solo album is a set of folk and blues op-ed journalism – following an activist impulse for this usually inward-looking artist that began on her last album, 2011’s Let England Shake. “Now you see them, now you don’t/Faces, limbs, a bouncing skull,” she sings against rushing acoustic guitars, braying sax and circular hand claps on “The Wheel,” a survey of the cyclical nature of war.
Harvey traveled to Afghanistan and Kosovo, and spent time in Washington, D.C., witnessing the many costs of imperialist aggression. But anyone expecting a traditional protest record hasn’t paid much attention to her long career. This music is impressionistically pointed. “Ministry of Defence” is apocalyptic metal, with English dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson joining in to recite a list of mundane leftovers at the end of the world: syringes, razors and a plastic spoon. The ethereal “River Anacostia” interpolates the spiritual “Wade in the Water” to subtly evoke military-industrial toxicity. Harvey’s visit to Washington, D.C. seemed to leave the strongest impression on her: she traipsed through “Drugtown” (chronicled in the deceptively upbeat “The Community of Hope”), did some light sight-seeing (the folky reportage of “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln”), toured naval battlements (“River Anacostia”) and sat and reflected on addiction at the National Mall (the punky sax rocker “Medicinals”). One song, “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” builds literally off of Jerry McCain’s sexist 1955 blues stomper “That’s What They Want” and gives way to Harvey’s modern ruminations about how people look at beggars and amputees as well as her own discordant, Jackson Pollock-y tenor sax solo.
The LP, as a whole, is a lot to process. Harvey often sings in an errant soprano that can turn reportage into abstraction. But when paired with her band’s tightly quilted tapestries of accordion, flute, violin, “field recordings” and sax, sax and more sax throughout – all recorded in an art installation where anyone could watch the singer & co. work through one-sided glass – her voice becomes transcendent, a cry for change. What emerges is one of her most challenging albums, and one of her most urgent – “I believe we have a future to do something good,” she sings on the almost poppy “A Line in the Sand.” She’s making it.