A memorable memento mori
PJ HARVEY White Chalk Island
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 The gorgon-like fury of previous work is gone, and Harvey’s trademark guttural angst has been replaced by a falsetto whisper.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