Monday, October 15, 2007

PJ Harvey White Chalk Review

PJ Harvey – White Chalk (Island)

In search of her muse Polly Jean Harvey has ditched the stripped down bone dry blues of Huh Huh Huh. In the arch of PJ Harveys career this is nothing new, each record seems to have been a reaction to the previous one, but she has never gone this far out before. Purged are those trademark guitars, missing those deep vocals growls, absent any signs of alternative rock. The results are a brave, honest and terrifying record.

In fear of repeating herself, unwilling to release substandard material, she has abandoned the guitar as a writing tool. These songs where written and performed on the piano. An instrument that is an unfamiliar to her as a healthy diet was to Elvis. The results are a collection of sparse, skeletal songs. This is audio ectoplasm. The material haunted by ghosts, unfulfilled desires, departed lovers and loved ones.

From the first moment you hear Polly sing on this record you aware of the change. Her voice is pitched at the highest point of her range. A floating whisper compared to her usual tone. The backing track just sparse piano notes, a barely audible guitar and restrained drumming.

Lyrical concerns are cryptic, impressionist, allowing the listener to draw the dots to divine the meaning from the dark and broken images. There is loss, regret and a fair degree of guilt hidden amongst the twisted oaks, decaying fallow earth and enveloping darkness

The lead single When Under Ether is a brave choice. Harvey has spoken of how pleased she was that it sounded so odd when played by Zane Lowe on Radio One. That it’s otherworldliness provided such a stark contrast to the lumpen guitar rock that is the programs stock and trade.

The piano melody of the track gently repeats itself as Harvey sings of an operation, probably an abortion, in a hushed drowsy timbre. The description is in the first person but you not sure if its autobiographical or dark fiction. The protagonist is focussed on the human kindness of the staff; it is an unsettling and unusual twist. The theme is of an unwanted child is alluded to throughout the record.

On the gentle acoustic strum of White Chalk there is mention of “Dorset’s white cliffs reach the sea, …unborn child me, scratch my palms there is blood on my hands..”, the guitars are coupled with a banjo and then a set of single hammered piano notes carry the song to a close.

A single vocal pleading “please don’t rapproch me for how empty my life has become..”snaps you awake at the opening of Broken Harp. The clanking of, well broken harp carries the melody before the songs drops to a multi tracked vocal and a organ drone Harvey sings “Something metal tearing my stomach out, if you think ill of me, can you forgive me.” The starkness of the declaration is an electric shock, a high voltage and soulful testimonial.

The brevity of White Chalk, little over half and hour, leaves you breathless and anxious. The ideas crammed into these eleven songs are more than many artist manage in a career. This is a record for the dark nights of the soul. Heaven only knows where PJ Harvey will head next. Will she be able to top the power and precision of this record? I don’t know but I am already desperate to hear her next step forward.

Tony Heywood