The work of PJ Harvey
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White Chalk (2007)

She set out to disassemble twenty years of experience. She started by composing on the piano, an instrument she didn’t play, and ended by not only using a style she never had before, but which nobody had, nor ever would again. Harvey cut herself off from her musical past, from landscape (except for the title track, tied explicitly to Dorset), from everything, and created an entirely new genre. It’s influenced by the English folk tradition (‘Broken Harp’ very obviously), but isn’t folk; it’s intimate and piano-based, but isn’t chamber music either. Harvey said she wanted White Chalk’s songs to sound as though they might have come from a century in the past or a century in the future: either way, they were not from now. They were a message from an unknown realm. For album sleeve and tour, she had herself sewn and buttoned into pseudo-Victorian gowns made by Maria Mochnacz’s sister Annie, sometimes black, sometimes white: and song lyrics were scrawled across the white ones, as though Harvey herself was erased, submerged within the dire world she had created. She has been dismantled, and all that remains is the voice and what it sings.

That voice is driven by the awkward piano – most of the time, Harvey plays no more than a few simple repetitive melodies on each track – into the uppermost region of her register, so she sounds utterly disconnected from the persona we know. The many, many instruments featured on the album (and it’s very hard to locate them all – what, for instance, is the low, thin drone way down in the mix on ‘To Talk to You’?), for the most part merely decorate a vocal which is part ghost, part child. And there’s no relief from it, either: this is a recording with a single texture throughout, even more than To Bring You My Love was.

Most critics couldn’t approach White Chalk’s unwelcoming soundscape except through the clichés of Gothic fiction, but you will look in vain for Byronic lovers, lunatic asylums, or governesses in attics. The ‘conveyor belt’ image of ‘When Under Ether’ and the glimpses of keyboards, for instance, make this anything but sepia-toned pastiche Victoriana, notwithstanding Bronte-esque touches such as ‘The Devil’’s ‘come here at once! … for all of my being is now in pining’. Instead, the songs are worryingly inconclusive, impossible to anchor in anything other than a moment of emotion. They convey the sense that something has happened, just out of sight, of which we are only hearing the traces. It’s a profoundly uncanny place to be: as though we’ve opened a door into a haunted room.

‘The Devil’ actually begins jauntily enough, but less than a minute in we know that something is very, very wrong. ‘Dear Darkness’ addresses depression as an entity that can be bargained with. Unborn children, and the abortion of them, seem to be the subtext of ‘When Under Ether’ (Harvey was typically evasive about this in interviews but it’s hard to see what else it can be), ‘White Chalk’, and possibly ‘Broken Harp’ (‘something metal is tearing my stomach’). When the words ‘human kindness’ razor into ‘When Under Ether’ they aren’t a comfort, they’re something from a nightmare. ‘To Talk to You’, opening from Harvey’s own experience as it addresses a dead grandmother, ought to be tender but turns as haunted as the rest. ‘Grow Grow Grow’ connects planted roses under a ‘twisted oak grove’ to womanhood with a malignity which hints at witchcraft, although it’s all very vague, and ends in a weird discord. Everywhere we turn there is oppressive loneliness and isolation, intensified by the lack of any kind of reference point, any anchor beyond internal experience. ‘The Piano’, a track so violent in juxtaposition to its quietness that it becomes painful, culminates in indifference: ‘nobody’s listening’.

There are two moments of relaxation. ‘Silence’, though it may end with that word echoing around an aching piano and low drums, is full of lovely harmonies; topped by Harvey’s harmonica, ‘Before Departure’ treats friendship and loss tenderly and humanely. Then, perhaps after a couple of listens, just as we’re thinking White Chalk maybe isn’t as weird as its reputation makes it, in swoops ‘The Mountain’. ‘In my heart every tree is broken’, Harvey whispers, her heavily reverbed voice escalating the distance and isolation, before pounding the piano to accompany a long, hair-raising wail that dies away on a note, leaving us hanging without resolution of any kind.

This is not a groundbreaking recording, as that would imply that someone could follow it. It is, instead, sui generis, a unique, dreadful masterpiece: it opens a gap into a void, which, as the last note of ‘The Mountain’ fades, closes again, leaving the memory of damage.

She’s 37.

Non-album tracks, 2007-8

White Chalk appears to have been so unique, and its vision stimulated Harvey’s creative powers so intensely, that there were no out-takes or trial runs that found their way onto b-sides. Instead she took the opportunity (as described on the Dry page) to release two tracks dating from the very start of her career, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Wait’; and ‘Liverpool Tide’, a lyrically-dramatic love song from the Stories era, powered by a thick guitar, in which snow falls and the sky cracks. And that was it.