'It’s a record to be played alone at 3am with just the creak of ancient floorboards and the howling wind through the trees for company'
Although she’s been knocking out albums for over 15 years, no two PJ Harvey records are ever the same. In fact, each is a total reaction to the last one.
When we last checked in on Planet Harvey with 2004’s ‘Uh Huh Her’, she’d replaced dirty urban duets with Thom Yorke and the Mercury-winning guitars of ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ with a scratchy, low-fi strum. For anyone but the most obsessive fan it was her worst album – cold, abrasive and instantly forgettable.
On first listen, PJ’s seventh studio album ‘White Chalk’ is ‘Uh Huh Her’ part two. But slowly the differences reveal themselves. Recorded by someone who sounds completely isolated from everything else that’s going on in music right now, its sparse, ghostly gloom is guaranteed to empty dancefloors at 100 paces. Instead it’s a record to be played alone at 3am in a deserted farmhouse, with just the creak of ancient floorboards and the howling wind through the trees for company.
Recorded on piano and sung in a whispered voice so fragile as to be almost inaudible and with not a chorus in sight, it’s fair to say Polly’s always been at her best when she’s exorcising her demons. And ‘White Chalk’ is her most personal album since 1993’s ‘Rid Of Me’. She’s at it within seconds of the opening song ‘The Devil’ and it’s relentless for the next 35 minutes. The title track, a twisted love letter to her native Dorset, deals with her own death, while ‘The Piano’ is a gruesome murder ballad that sees Harvey taking on the persona of a jilted lover turned bad: “Hit her with a hammer/Teeth smashed in”, she moans, “Red tongues twitching/Look inside her skeleton”. ‘Foundations’ this ain’t. But brilliant it is.
Frustratingly, though, ‘White Chalk’ isn’t consistent enough to be a classic PJ album, and if you’re new to her music, this isn’t the ideal place to start. ‘Broken Harp’ sounds like it was recorded on just that, while the screeched vocals on album closer ‘The Mountain’ had some NME staffers trampling over each other to get to the stereo and turn it off.
But if, when you look at your record collection, you find the angst of Kate Nash paper-thin or think Amy Winehouse has descended into tabloid caricature, then you’ll find the real deal here. Just don’t expect to hear the single on Radio 1.