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Beautiful, arcane, unsettling – and that’s only the cover. White Chalk isn’t so much a record, as a great effort at dragging you into another world.
Colin Carberry, 17 Sep 2007
We can safely predict that Top Shop won’t be asking PJ Harvey to design a clothes range once they see the cover of White Chalk.
She’s always had a Kevin Rowland-esque knack for using each new record to introduce a startling new visual detour. But this time, Polly’s come up with her most esoteric look yet. Is she wearing a wedding dress, you wonder, or a shroud? Is she looking straight down the lens? Or does her gaze wander off-camera? And who is it she reminds you of? One of Whistler’s portraits? Lizzie Borden? Emily Dickinson? Estella from Great Expectations? Or, even more chillingly, is it one of those eerie mortuary slab pics of the victims of Jack The Ripper?
Beautiful, arcane, unsettling – and that’s only the cover. From the off, you should know that White Chalk isn’t so much a record, as a great virtuoso effort at dragging you into another world.
Of course, anyone who has heard the lead single, ‘When Under Ether’, will already be aware of this. We’ve become used to supposedly alternative musicians chasing the big cross-over buck in recent years. By reintroducing herself after a three-year absence with a ghostly piano ballad about a clandestine abortion, Peej really couldn’t make it any clearer that she doesn’t care to share a dressing room with Girls Aloud.
It’s entirely in keeping with a record dominated by the cob-webbed creeks of Harvey’s piano; Jim White’s subtle, padded drums; and a gas-lit lyrical atmosphere that, never mind the 21st century, barely takes the 20th under its notice.
Fans should be warned. There is barely a hint of a guitar, never mind a power chord or chugging blues riff. Meanwhile, Polly’s voice has undergone a radical change. She sounds like Vashti Bunyan in places. Or Joanna Newsom’s stranger sister. It’s childish, slightly catatonic, heavily Gothic.
Likewise, there’s an Absolute Zero quality to the arrangements. They’re sparse to the point of invisibility; chilly, archaic and spare. But mistake all this for emotional detachment at your peril. If anything, the closer you get to the heart of these songs, the more likely they are to burn you.