White Chalk by PJ Harvey
An appreciation by Richard Conning
Polly Jean Harvey is hardly a neglected artist. One of the strongest musical talents to emerge from the UK in the last 30 years, she has been feted by the critics, loved by her fans and awarded an MBE by the Queen. Nor is White Chalk a critically reviled album. It was well received by most rock writers. It is, however, the album that many of her fans don’t like. It stands apart from the rest of her work, or rather hovers in a dark corner, glowing in a ghostly way. Those who adore the magnificent “Patti Smith meets Beefheart” assault of her 90s output are often repulsed by what they find here. A quick survey of Amazon customer reviews will give an idea: “wimpy”, “monotonous”, “dirgelike”, “I really miss the rocking out”.
Quite simply, this album is stylistically completely different from the rest of her oeuvre. It’s a collection of stark, mostly piano-based arrangements, overlaid with a voice that is haunted and much higher in pitch than usual. This combination has a startling effect, Gothic almost, but not in the usual sense that the term is used in rock music, denoting gloomy chord voicings and over-application of mascara.
The album opens with “The Devil”. There’s something almost Beatles- or Beach Boys-like about these catchy piano chords, plinking away on the eighth note, with overlaid ethereal backing vocals. But then the lead vocal enters, urgent but somehow remote as well. The high register seems to put the listener at one remove from the singer, a big contrast to her earlier in-your-face style of delivery. One gets the feeling from the start that the singer has undergone some trauma that has caused a need to distance herself from the pain.
As soon as I am left alone
the devil wanders into my soul
The singer is haunted and alone, waiting for somebody in particular:
I go out to the old mile-stone
…I wait for you there
all of my being is now pining
There’s a wonderful, urgent chorus: Come here at once! But it isn’t repeated. After a short return to the verse the song ends abruptly, leaving us longing for a catharsis that will never be provided. This is a characteristic of many, if not most of the songs on White Chalk.
The second song is “Dear Darkness”:
…Cover me from the sound of the words tightening
around my throat and around the throat of the one
The instrumentation expands to include banjo, surely never used to such bleak effect as on this album.
“Grow Grow Grow” begins to give an idea of the nature of the singer’s trauma, combining violent images of life’s beginning:
I sowed a seed
underneath the oak tree
I trod it in
with my boots I trampled it down
teach me mummy
how to grow
The music alternates between the eighth note chording in the verse and an expansive arpeggiated chorus in waltz time. The effect is cinematic, imposing a distance on the pain of the singer but also setting it in dramatic relief.
“When Under Ether” takes us to the fluorescent netherworld of a medical clinic, and briefly reports the singer’s experience:
When under ether
the mind comes
but the will to
It is made clearer than ever what this collection of songs is dealing with.
disappears in the
this world to the
On the gorgeous “White Chalk” the voice seems to echo across a ravine as it describes a Dorset childhood and a Dorset demise.
White chalk hills are all I’ve known
White chalk hills will rot my bones
Dorset’s cliffs meet at the sea
where I walked, our unborn child in me
On this song and the next the piano isn’t employed, and these songs pierce the heart all the more deeply for the lack of it.
“Broken Harp” is almost mercifully brief, a folk song sung to a backing of dilapidated dulcimer. The raw guilt and anguish are served dry and sit before us on the table.
I tried to learn your language
but fell asleep half undressed
unrecognisable to myself
With the lovely “Silence” we begin to see some acceptance, and a readiness to move ahead of the experience.
I’d risen this morning determined to break
the spell of my longing, and not to think.
One of the album’s fuller arrangements, it moves from a lyrical, reflective verse to a wonderful multitracked coda. It fades all too soon, the only track on the album to fade rather than end abruptly.
The bleakness returns with “To Talk to You”.
Oh grandmother, how I miss you
under the earth – I wish I was with you
…and yet the beauty of the music seems to provide its own optimism, surely an abiding theme of this record.
“The Piano” begins with a violent image:
Hit her with a hammer
teeth smashed in
…and moves to a longing memory…
My fingers sting
where I feel your fingers have been
Oh god I miss you!
Somehow it’s all bound up with the helplessness of childhood:
Daddy’s in the corner
rattling his keys
mummy’s in the doorway
trying to leave
Penultimate song “Before Departure” almost reads like a suicide note:
Goodbye my friends
Goodbye to evening
in the spring
…but really it seems to deal more with the different phases of life, and how important it is to have friends who will accept all of the changes that life brings to a personality.
will carry me over
any cause of strangeness
and any cause of
Again employing the musical gambit of a chorus in waltz time, this time giving the effect of a sudden rush of positivity, the song ends with an achingly pretty piano figure that is repeated several times.
Beautiful album closer “The Mountain” seems to continue the piano coda of the previous track with a lovely chord sequence in the verse. It describes the singer’s betrayal but in an elegiac manner, seeming to box up the experience, to paint it as a picture, put it on the wall and walk away from it.
for in my own heart every tree is broken –
the first tree will not blossom
the second will not grow
the third has almost fallen
since you betrayed me so
And so the album ends, the voice wailing over dramatic piano chords. A chilling end to an album that is, by any measure of the word, a masterpiece.
Song lyrics: http://pjharvey.net/