PJ Harvey – White Chalk

PJ Harvey
White Chalk

In theory, you certainly can’t fault Polly Jean Harvey’s ambitious intention to regenerate/reinvent her artistic persona for almost every album in her 15 or so year career. However, this insistent urge for chameleon-like changes has had its drawbacks. Thus, the diverse charms of her 1992 debut Dry were trampled-on by 1993’s brutally difficult Rid of Me, her majestic vaudevillian take on the twisted-blues of Nick Cave, Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits for 1995’s terrific To Bring You My Love was flatly followed by the introspective indulgence of 1998’s somewhat stillborn Is This Desire?, and 2000’s bright melodic Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea had to make-do with the slightly mannered scuzz-rock of 2004’s underwhelming Uh Huh Her for its sequel. But if this ‘one good/one indifferent’ album pattern is set as rigidly as Polly’s artistic principles, then by this writer’s reckoning, 2007’s White Chalk should be another killer collection, whatever stylistic clothing has been pulled from her wardrobe.

It’s deeply apparent from the outset that Harvey has made a concerted attempt to shed yet another skin as well as push for compositional excellence. In the process she has forged something that is both challenging and often breathtaking. So, out go lead guitars, in come pianos, out go snarling vocals, in come ghostly falsettos, back comes To Bring You My Love-era collaborators John Parish and Eric Drew Feldman for multi-instrumentalist duties, and ushered-out are ‘straight’ drums to make room for obtuse percussive-bedding from the Dirty Three’s Jim White. Together, these ‘rock-free’ elements coalesce around some of Harvey’s most dark and chilling songs.

The opening opaqueness of “The Devil” pretty much maps out the dominant direction of White Chalk; with atmospheric studio textures, plaintive keyboards, distressed and distant multi-tracked vocals all blended into ethereal baroque ballads, that conceal shadowy tales of violent death, desolate rural geography, crippling obsessions and the chronic pain of longing. This means that amidst repeated acts of musical elegance up floats disturbing lines like “Hit her with a hammer/Teeth smashed-in” (“The Piano”) and “Something metal/Tearing my stomach out” (“Broken Harp”), to make you pray that these songs are purely fictional.

For most of the time, the desolate gothic ambience of the album is akin to walking through a haunted Victorian mansion whilst hearing the disembodied thoughts of haunted lost souls, trapped into a purgatory-like limbo. It’s far from being an easy-listening affair then, and there are definitely no quick inroads for anyone expecting to find stand-alone hook-heavy songs like “Down By The Water” or “Good Fortune”. But those who have developed the patience needed for the likes of Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day, Dead Can Dance’s Serpent’s Egg or Joanne Newsom’s Ys, should find themselves in awe of the evocative and brittle beauty of White Chalk. Let’s just hope that Harvey’s next LP breaks her cycle of boom-then-slump creativity, because this poignant and powerful collection deserves an equally profound successor.