Wild Mercury Sound

PJ Harvey's White Chalk

John Mulvey

There's an interesting interview with Steve Albini in the forthcoming issue of Uncut, where he talks about various albums he's been involved with over the years. One of them is PJ Harvey's "Rid Of Me". "Around that point, Polly was a wicked guitar player," Albini says. "One of the things that I think she lost after she moved away from the band format, and into the solo artist format, is that she doesn't show off her guitar playing any more - she's not in a situation where her guitar playing matters as much."

I wonder what Albini will make of Harvey's new album? It's called "White Chalk", and there is barely any guitar on it. Instead, this is a piano album, a record of great beauty, austerity and discreet power. The first thing you notice about it, though, as "The Devil" begins, is that there's a pronounced change in her voice. Far from the deep, carnal swagger that dominated "Uh Huh Her", Harvey's voice is pitched higher, and is much more fragile-sounding. "White Chalk" is not, for once, a PJ Harvey record that will draw the usual Patti Smith comparisons.

In fact, the first point of reference that springs to mind as "The Devil" rides along on firmly plonked piano and tambourine, is the ethereal soul of Laura Nyro. The relative bounce of this proves to be a bit of a red herring, though. For much of "White Chalk", there's a sombre austerity to proceedings, epitomised by the cover portrait of Harvey sat, prim in white gown, looking for all the world (as our pic researcher Phil astutely points out) like a Whistler portrait.

There's a touch of antique gothic here, as you might imagine, a hint of romantic spirit struggling to express itself in a tightly-buttoned environment. The imagery is visceral and loaded: words "are tightening around the throat of the one I love" in "Dear Darkness"; "Grow Grow Grow" involves planting roses and tramping earth down beneath "twisted oak groves"; "Scratch my palms, there's blood on my hands," she observes in the title track. "When Under Ether" has the atmosphere of a haunted Victorian hospital, a tripping song far away from the raptures of psychedelia.

It's a short record (33 minutes, I think) of 11 songs, and the nearest antecedent I can remember in Harvey's back catalogue are those piano nocturnes on "Is This Desire?" (especially "When Under Ether", for some reason). At other times ("Broken Harp" and "White Chalk" itself), I'm faintly reminded of Will Oldham, his meticulous, emotionally-charged minimalism - though "White Chalk" escalates into something discreetly epic, a Morricone sketch.

As far as I know, the only other musicians are the faithful Eric Drew Feldman and the great Jim White, a new recruit, on drums. White is well trained in this sort of understated music, having worked plenty with Chan Marshall, and he brushes his kit so stealthily at times as to be practically invisible.

The idea, clearly, is to put all the focus on the piano and the voice. Sometimes, Harvey's vocals are treated and dislocated: on "To Talk To You" her tone has a voluptuous soft-focus shape a bit like that of Liz Fraser (in This Mortal Coil, rather than in the over-varnished clutter of The Cocteau Twins, though). Once or twice, when the songs become less impressionistic and more immediate ("Silence", especially), there's a momentum which sounds like a ghostly, subversive response to the dominant piano rock of Coldplay, Keane et al.

"White Chalk", of course, sounds nothing like that: it's far too odd and intimate and cobwebby for mass singalongs in the O2 Dome, I'm sure. It's also, I think, one of the most compelling albums that Harvey has made. That confrontational crunch of guitar and stentorian bass voice may be absent (though not gone forever, I suspect), but an identifiable musical character remains: balancing, perhaps more overtly than ever, shyness with great passion. Thirty seconds before the record ends, in "The Mountain", she lets out this great melodious banshee wail, very Kate Bush actually, and sounds like she's making an escape from the formal strictures she's imposed on herself. It's a thrilling moment of liberation, but it'd be meaningless without all the atmosphere and tension which precedes it.


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