By Danny Roca | 18 October 2007
A shadow descends over the UK during autumn. Tans fade into a milky pallor. The celebratory crowds that accumulated outside the bars and pubs dissipate and disband. People shed their summer livery to step reluctantly into their monochrome uniforms. Once-inviting parks and streets seethe with the threat of crime when cloaked in darkness and loam grey clouds blanket the sky.
Nowhere is this manifest more vividly than on the coasts. The elements churn, the metallic scent of electricity fills the air, and the salty breeze snakes around your body to mottle your face with frost. And all accompanied by the cold tempestuous brine crashing against the bleached-bone cliffs. These are not the iconic white cliffs of Dover, a symbol of hope and British solidarity. These cliffs are fragile and porous: slowly crumbling, eroding and falling apart, beaten by a relentless sea. Hope is futile and there is no resolve other than to yield to a greater power. These cliffs are White Chalk, PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album.
Themes of resignation and defeatism hang thick through the album like the smell of damp in a Victorian drawing room; this seems apt as her decision to change from guitar to piano seems less about investigating sound than about regressing into a former life. The guitar is synonymous with freedom and aggression, be it the travelling blues hobo or the sexual posturing axe man (roles PJ Harvey has adopted and radically feminised with great aplomb). When playing the piano you have to give in to it, you are physically encumbered by the instrument’s sheer size. It summons ghosts of the social mores and graces of drawing rooms and freezing church halls. Harvey’s playing is subtle; it’s mostly simple and metronomic, pulsed chords, as though a lavender-scented crow is watching attentively, tapping out the rhythm on the floor with her cane. Even her language has changed. The plaintive cry of “Please don’t reproach me” on the jagged “Broken Harp” sounds as though she’s been possessed by spirits from Middlemarch. PJ Harvey is not the 50ft Queenie here. She is a waif-like Emily Bronte heroine or a restrained Dickensian debutante, which she emulates through her stilted pose on the cover.
The image is, in itself, unsettling, but it’s the child-like voice she uses throughout the album which unnerve the most. It sounds like she is overcome with consumption; she’s in fear of being overheard despite needing to cry for help. Each song is another revelation, another confession which numbs you with its emotional frankness — be it hints of abortion on “When Under Ether” — “Something’s inside me / Unborn and unblessed / Disappears in the ether / One world to the next” — or pleading for unrequited love on “Silence.” The claustrophobic “Dear Darkness,” which sounds like it’s being whispered into your ear with Harvey’s last dying breath, borders on too-uncomfortable-to-take.
The skeletal production and over-bearing sense of suffocation is broken only once, on closer “The Mountain.” Harvey wails with such harrowing ferocity that it threatens to tip the listener into tears. It’s almost as if she has thrown herself off the rocks and into the icy depths — death being more welcoming and appetising than the life she is forced to lead. It is an unsettling end to disturbingly intimate album; one in which I have found, against a backdrop of dirty grey London skies, incredible solace. And that’s astounding, both in how comforting Harvey has made uncomfortable sound at the same time that it bears little resemblance to her previous work and also to the music scene in general. The only true peer might be Joanna Newsom’s Ys (2006), to which White Chalk plays the evil sister. And maybe, with the joviality and cheeriness of Christmas ‘round the corner, I’ll lose interest in this album and move on to something which has, as the Doors said, “no time to wallow in the mire.” For now, however, I can think of nothing more liberating than to dive into its dark waters.