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.
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.
Take the Blair Witch nursery rhyme, ‘Grow Grow Grow’ – “Teach me mummy/How to grow/How to catch someone’s fancy/under the twisted oak”; or ‘To Talk To You’, which is a towering sister-piece to Sinéad’s version of ‘I Am Stretched On Your Grave'.
The biggest compliment I could pay most of these songs is that they sound as if Harvey has unearthed rather than written them.
To these ears, the record it resembles most is Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis’ solo album – a bleached-out masterpiece that sounded like it had been made in a hole and then buried for a century. White Chalk is just as other-worldly and equally as beguiling.
What the wider world will make of it is anybody’s guess. But for anyone partial to those glowering, distracted, once-in-a-career records that stand apart from the rest of their maker’s canon – The Holy Bible, for example, Here, My Dear, Don’t Stand Me Down, The Magical World of The Strands, Sister Lovers – White Chalk will prove unmissable.
It’s without doubt PJ Harvey’s most magical record in a decade.
In fact, dip the lights low enough, and it may even be the most enthralling thing she’s ever released.
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