Monday, September 24, 2007

Ghosts in the Machine

PJ Harvey's 'White Chalk'

PJ Harvey clearly has little care for continuity. With each new album, she has reinvented herself. She indulged her fiery rage and righteous hatred on ‘Rid Of Me’, explored erotic mysteries on ‘To Bring You My Love’ and ‘Is This Desire?’, ventured into relatively conventional rock terrain for the Mercury winning ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ and vented uncomplicated aggression on ‘Uh Huh Her’. Her latest venture, ‘White Chalk’, may well represent her most audacious transformation yet. It’s certainly the least commercial record she’s made in some time, in a career where commercial concerns rarely, if ever, seem to have been a significant factor.

At just 36 minutes long, one might be forgiven for inserting it into a CD player and expecting a set of snappy pop songs. Polly Harvey rarely takes such a comfortable route though of course. ‘White Chalk’ is in fact as confrontational and austere a record as I’ve heard this year. The majority of these songs were composed at the piano, and feature Polly pushing, occasionally straining, into the upper reaches of her vocal register. Formally trained pianists may wish to turn away now, for Polly is undoubtedly something of a novice at the old ivories, and much of the touch here is rather plinky-plonk.

There is, however, something eerily appropriate about this approach, particularly in the way it has directed Harvey towards a kind of chamber-noir sound. For much of ‘White Chalk’, Polly seems to be revelling in nostalgia for old lands, old times and a child’s loss of innocence. This being a PJ Harvey album though, it’s not the heart-warming, or even the melancholy form of nostalgic reverie. There’s a simmering malice and macabre chill throughout ‘White Chalk’ that creates unresolved tensions of the most cloying and uncomfortable kind. The skeletal piano and Yoko Ono-esque vocals serve to heighten and emphasise this discomfort.

The wonderful ‘Silence’, perhaps the album’s best track, begins ‘All those places where I recall/The memories that gripped me and pinned me down’. It sets the scene for the intense drama that plays out in the rest of the song, and also neatly summarises the album’s distinctive themes. Memory here has an inevitable, unavoidable force but is also stifling and disconcerting.

Both the title track and ‘Grow Grow Grow’ seem to revisit childhood. The latter is clearly an exploration of burgeoning child sexuality (‘Teach me Mummy how to grow, how to catch someone’s fancy beneath the twisted oak grove’), delivered almost as a fairytale. There are echoes of Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’ here, with its Freudian take on the Little Red Riding Hood story. ‘White Chalk’ itself is one of the more immediately appealing songs in this set, and one of the few to favour the rustle of an acoustic guitar over the more weighty backing of the piano. Harvey sings of ‘white chalk, sticking to my shoes, playing as a child with you’ and, rather more chillingly, claims that ‘these chalk hills will rot my bones’. There’s a majestic flow to the song that builds as it progresses.

Elsewhere, there’s an unrestrained longing that frequently boils over into desperation, from the malevolent cry at the heart of ‘The Devil’ (‘Come! Come! Come here at once!’) to the burning desire of ‘The Piano’. Much of this is reinforced by the stately yet quietly terrifying arrangements of these songs, from vivid vocal harmonies to soft, rustling percussion. Nick Cave’s ‘The Boatman’s Call’ has been cited as an obvious reference point, but where that album largely saw Cave abandon his trademark menace for more spiritual and romantic concerns, ‘White Chalk’ is as unsettling and troubling a record as Harvey has yet produced. Similarly, comparisons with Tori Amos and Kate Bush are largely unhelpful. There is mercifully nothing of Amos’ forced kookiness here, and if ‘White Chalk’ echoes some of Bush’s recent preoccupations with nature, that is only in the propensity of the natural world to evoke feeling and prompt memory. ‘White Chalk’ occupies its own peculiar space – a world that is creepy and bleak but thoroughly bewitching. On the surface, it’s completely uninviting, but ultimately it’s irresistibly tempting.

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