Polly Jane Harvey’s latest album, ‘Let England Shake’ has indeed sent seismic waves across Britain’s culture. It deals with topical issues, captures the conditions of war and boldly confronts British politics. It is an album very much rooted in the here and now. Yet in the midst of this album’s success I would like to leave its modern realism behind and take a step back in time to ‘Let England Shake’s’ predecessor. ‘White Chalk’ is Harvey’s release of 2007 that went almost unnoticed compared to the whirlwind of recognition she received in 2011. ‘Let England Shake’ has very modern influences, it is an eye opener to the world around us and provides a remedy to modern issues. ‘White Chalk’ on the other hand is inspired by the Victorian era, a lyrical dream world of song and an escapism from the world and the issues it possesses. So does this mean I’m a coward to prefer the fantasy of ‘White Chalk’? Maybe, but for any fans that missed the 2007 rung in Harvey’s ladder to success, I recommend that you retrace your steps to find that lost gem. Otherwise you might lose your footing in understanding the complexities of this artist’s music. As the saying goes, we must look to the past in order to understand the future.
White Chalk (2007)
Discordant melodies. Haunting vocals. Gothic lyrics. These are the ingredients that make up the recipe of ‘White Chalk’. Yet when whipped all together they make a feast for the ears not the taste buds: a feast that is bleak and refreshing, unexpected yet nostalgic, like a rainstorm in summer.
It is well-known that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Yet the cover to White Chalk provides the perfect preview to its content. Miss Harvey herself, with authentic dress and curled hair, is reminiscent of days gone by. Slide out the inner sleeve and you’ll find a profile that resembles a cameo. In fact, the whole structure of the case is old fashioned. It’s a simple envelope, which you expect to contain a letter of confession from a doting lover rather than a CD. It is quite obvious that Harvey received inspiration from the candlelit days of Charles Dickens. Yet the cover tells one more than that. Swathed in white, surrounded by shadow, Harvey could represent her own song ‘White Chalk’, which stands in contrast to the rest of the album’s darker material. It is a piece so uplifting that the listener feels that they are atop the mountains that Harvey sings about. The other songs, however, are lullabies of the type that would evoke nightmares rather than sweet dreams.
My advice would be to close the curtain, light some candles or incense and sip a herbal tea whilst listening to this album. That way the words will creep into your ears like spiders, Harvey’s voice will cause you to search the dark corners for a banshee and the piano will ease you gently into ‘White Chalk’s’ twisted yet beautiful world that could easily have been conjured amongst a cloud of opium.
I personally think it is a work of art. For the less adventurous it may take a few listens to come round, but come round you will. Anyone should be able to appreciate the obvious emotion behind each song. If not, I’m sure hands will reach out of the music and drag you in, kicking and screaming, whether you like it or not.
PJ Harvey’s latest work ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’