PJ Harvey’s new track from her upcoming album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, is lyrically different than most of her work. Though she’s often poetically opaque, “The Community of Hope” rather sounded like a series of fragmentary, sometimes reductive proclamations uttered by a somewhat cynical tour-guide. The lyrics are stated in a vacantly joyous deadpan that makes them sound like she’s recounting a series of quotes and perceptions from an outside source, woven together. With the release of her new video for the song — by frequent collaborator, war photographer Seamus Murphy — it turns out that may be a somewhat accurate reading.
In the beginning of the video, we see a man giving a tour of the Washington, D.C. neighborhood impacted by the HOPE VI, the urban development initiative around which Harvey’s album, Hope Six Demolition Project, takes its name. It turns out that man is Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman, who just published an article titled, “I gave a famous rock star a windshield tour of D.C. — and didn’t know who she was.”
“‘Would I be willing,’ Seamus asked by email, ‘to lead a tour of Washington’s roughest neighborhoods for him and a woman he described as a ‘musician/poet’?'” Schwartzman describes. “The woman was in the back, quiet and inscrutable, gazing out the window and writing in a journal.” In his article, he lists many spots that’re mentioned in the song as part of the initial tour he’d given them:
We went by the M.L.K. Deli, Matthews Memorial Baptist Church and the IHOP, which I told them was Southeast Washington’s only sit-down restaurant. Farther north, I drove through a housing project and pointed out a spot that was once home to a thriving methodone clinic.
Notably, he mentions how he said, “they’re gonna put a Walmart here” — a line, which verbatim, became the song’s long outro. In his article’s conclusion, the journalist notes that they ultimately didn’t “put the Walmart [there],” rendering the song more an encapsulation of that moment than an apt bit of foreshadowing.
After the car ride, Schwartzman had looked up Seamus Murphy to try to find out the identity of the woman in the back of the car. When he saw Murphy’d been collaborating with a certain PJ Harvey, he texted a friend, who texted back some clarifying words: “Female British rock/punk/blues singer 1994-present…Super cool.” Murphy had later (once Schwartzman was informed) asked for another tour to get the footage seen in the video.
Certain details such as this assertion about the Walmart and the simple lyrics can have a dehumanizing quality when taken out of context of the song and the fact that the whole thing seems to be in quotes reflective of perceptions; it thus angered some local politicians. Former D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray told the DCist he wouldn’t “dignify the composition with a response,” and his campaign treasurer said, “PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”
“Have you not trashed the place that, for better or worse, is home to people who are working to make it better, who take pride in their accomplishments?” asked the Community of Hope, the District nonprofit whose name is used in the song. It’s an understandable point to aim at lyrics referring to the area as a “drug town” full of “zombies” — though the song offers nuance in juxtaposition, creating an empathic sound that jars with the reductive perceptions in its lyrics.
The video itself perhaps sheds more light on this juxtaposition. The video footage presents the neighborhood and its residents unsensationally, but contrasts its dilapidation with images of D.C.’s military presence, emphasizing how the country’s disproportionate military spending and our lacking ability to solve issues of wealth imbalance is readily on display in its capital city. At the end of the song, a local gospel choir sings its final lyrics.