33 of 41 people found the following review helpful
If you're feeling sinister...,
This review is from: White Chalk (Audio CD)
Reactions to the surprise of PJ Harvey's eighth album seemed to fall into two camps: those who miss her 'classic' angry guitar-based sound and don't think that White Chalk represents the essence of what a P J Harvey album "should" be; and those who fell under its bleak, ethereal spell.
This time Harvey is seated at the piano and sings in fleeting songs (the whole album lasts less than 34 minutes) of loss, childhood, death, family and abortion, evoking a dusty atmosphere: "The devil wanders into my soul," she sings on the opener, and "Dear darkness, dear darkness, won't you cover, cover me - again?" on the next track. Broken Harp opens with a plea: "Please don't reproach me for how empty my life has become" while the title track sees her strolling in a desolate landscape, lonely and resigned: "Dorset's cliffs lead to the sea / Where I walked our unborn child in me". Families fall apart ("Daddy's in the corner, rattling his keys. Mummy's in the doorway trying to leave"); her dead grandmother is longingly apostrophed; and her mother is invoked to "teach me to grow".
Throughout Harvey sings in a higher register than usual, wailing and impaling herself in the highest reaches of her voice - childlike, fragile and introspective (an acquired taste it seems: some have hated her for this vocal change). The atmosphere feels naked and chilly, as if recorded in a dusty room lined with cobwebs and antique furniture, and recalls the ominous air of gothic novels like Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights (1847). Even the cover, on which Polly looks like a Victorian governess in her puffed white dress and restrained pose, seems eerily reminiscent of a painting of another gothic hero: Edvard Munch's Puberty (1895).
Although it clearly represents a radical change of direction for Harvey, it is not an album without apparent influences, bearing traces of Marissa Nadler's Songs III: Bird on the Water, Nick Cave's dark tales, Björk's Vespertine and the breathy, lethargic vocals of Hope Sandoval. But Harvey nevertheless weaves her own cloth out of the thread, creating something sombre and dirge-like in the process. In a recent interview she explained that "The white chalk of the West Country hills was not consciously my inspiration at all for this record. I just like the sound of the words 'white chalk'. It can be millions of years old but erased in a second, and somehow has a timeless quality. The timelessness became more the source of inspiration." (4.5 stars)
Standouts: The Mountain, The Devil, Dear Darkness, The Piano