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The phrase ‘musical reinvention’ gets bandied about pretty much every time a reasonably well-established recording artist finds out what a drum machine is. But perhaps the surest sign of the fact that PJ Harvey really has reinvented herself is that it’s taken about a decade to actually be totally certain.
Polly Jean Harvey’s elegiac 2011 masterpiece Let England Shake wasn’t her first record to deviate from the sound she made her name with. But in the past she would always came back to noisy blues rock, and her lyrics invariably excavated inner space and the savage side of the female experience. It now feels pretty clear that that’s all gone, with 2007’s underrated acoustic White Chalk the transition and Let England Shake the realisation. With ninth album The Hope Six Demolition Project it’s clear that 2004’s lo-fi Uh Huh Her was the final stand of PJ Harvey the rocker. PJ Harvey has become what music hacks tend to call a elder statesperson, and she’s done it better than pretty much anyone out there.
The Hope Six Demolition Project is cut from superficially similar cloth to its predecessor: large band, lots of horns, lots of acoustic instruments, lots of John Parrish singing, with the – effectively asexual – lyrics presenting Harvey as a storyteller, offering research-based reportage of overseas atrocities. But the more you listen the more apparent the differences are, the similarities really a testament to the fact she really has shifted the fundamentals of what she does, the two records united by sounding so distant to the early work. I suspect it won’t go down quite as well as Let England Shake, partly because it’s fractionally less good, more because it’s harder to understand that its predecessor’s elegantly crafted evocation of the First World War.