A mem­o­rable me­mento mori

PJ HAR­VEY White Chalk Is­land

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music Reviews -

Polly Jean Har­vey knows a thing or two about rein­ven­tion. This is, af­ter all, a wo­man who went from no make-up and un­der­arm hair to drag-glam make-up and a se­quinned Stars and Stripes bra. The cover of White Chalk is yet an­other in­car­na­tion, but this time it’s all vir­ginal re­straint and an­gelic sulk­i­ness. Clad in white and eerily echo­ing a Vic­to­rian death photo, PJ is the op­po­site of her mod­ern as­sertive self.

The com­posed, quiet pose is the first inkling to what lies on the album. The gor­gon-like fury of pre­vi­ous work is gone, and Har­vey’s trade­mark gut­tural angst has been re­placed by a falsetto whis­per. Even more sur­pris­ing is the near ab­sence of her dis­tinc­tive gui­tar licks. They creep in oc­ca­sion­ally, but only to tip­toe around in the back­ground while pi­ano and strings take charge.

For all the sweet vo­cals and un­der­stated melodies, a gothic cloud hov­ers over White Chalk; th­ese are sugar-coated fairy­tales with a dark cen­tre. In the ti­tle song she con­fides: “Scratch my palms, there’s blood on my hands”. Grow Grow Grow is full of burial im­agery, while the sin­gle While Un­der Ether con­jures up per­sonal tragedy in an aus­tere hospi­tal set­ting.

With long­time pro­ducer Flood again at the helm, Har­vey is joined by leg­endary drum­mer Jim “Dirty Three” White, whose less-is-more shuf­fles are per­fectly judged.

White Chalk will be called haunt­ing, sparse, beau­ti­ful, but above all it’s an ex­pected ex­per­i­ment from a supreme tal­ent. Some fans won’t like it – there are no sharp edges, no splin­ter­ing feed­back. As her album out­put nears dou­ble fig­ures, Har­vey proves that even in her more ethe­real mo­ments, her pre­rog­a­tive is never to con­form and by the end, we’re cap­ti­vated.

What re­mains, af­ter Moun­tain closes things, is an eerie epic, a mu­si­cal me­mento mori and one of the finest al­bums Har­vey has made. www.pjhar­vey.net

SINÉAD GLEE­SON Down­load tracks: The Devil, When Un­der Ether, Si­lence

Em­i­nent Vic­to­rian: PJ Har­vey

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