‘The Wheel’ opens as an unapologetic musical call to arms; pairing grand, rock guitar riffs that move like a locomotive with soulful horns and a relentless rhythm driven by percussive claps. Premiering on Thursday on Steve Lamacq’s show on BBC Radio 6 Music, it’s the first single from PJ Harvey’s forthcoming album, ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’.
While the production is an unashamed sonic wall of strength, Harvey offers a narrative that is far less celebratory. Opening with lyrics that match a visual in her album trailer – “a revolving wheel of little chairs, hung from chains, squealing” – Harvey then moves into darker territory singing “hey little children, don’t disappear” while a chorus responds with “I heard it was 28,000”, a line that is repeated throughout the track.
It can’t be an accident that Harvey has coupled anthemic music with pleading and concerned lyrics (she was announced this week as a headliner for Primavera Sound in June and will be playing European festivals from April until November) considering a strong lyrical hook from ‘The Wheel’ repeats the line “watch them fade out”; a line that festival crowds will be undoubtedly chanting as they watch her perform. The choral production continues throughout the track with an almost aggressively styled nursery rhyme delivery on the lyric, “now you see them, now you don’t”.
‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ is an 11-track album that was previewed to the public via two very curated experiences in 2015; the first was through ‘Recording in Progress’, an art installation at Somerset House that afforded audiences with the opportunity to watch Harvey record her ninth album.
The second preview was a multimedia show that saw Harvey take to the stage at Royal Festival Hall – with previous collaborator and photographer Seamus Murphy – to launch ‘The Hollow of The Hand’, a book that married Harvey’s poetry with Murphy’s images, following their joint travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington DC during 2011 and 2014, the content of which is injected into this album.
Judging by ‘The Wheel’ alone, the music is almost as juxtaposed as the creative process; Harvey has used two very modern, London locations to record and tell stories of war-torn and poverty-stricken regions and the people within them, much like her music is using a bluesy and brazen rock landscape to accompany stories of pain, sadness and loss.
In an interview following Harvey’s 2011 Mercury Prize win, she talked about her sensitivity as an artist and the need to absorb, articulate and process what she sees, thinks and feels. It should then come as no surprise that her travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC with Murphy, manifested because she “wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries” that she was fascinated by.
Harvey’s artistry continues to evolve well beyond what is safe and commercially predictable – she has instead chosen to watch, and then engage with certain aspects of the world, using her songwriting to assign weight and attention to her chosen subjects and observations.
Harvey’s musicality has always been prominent, impressive and discussed but it is through her reportage-style songwriting, featured on ‘The Wheel’ that we see great art at work – art that uses talent as a vessel to shine a light on universality and stories that are otherwise unseen.