dimanche, septembre 23, 2007

Polly Jean Harvey

PJ Harvey's White Chalk is genius with a dark heart.

As the tracks unfold, Jude Rogers finds herself acting as Polly Jean's agony aunt while listening to her wailing like a Kate Bush from hell on perhaps the saddest album she's ever heard

Friday September 21, 2007
Guardian Unlimited


0.10 Out on the wild and windy moors, Polly Jean Harvey's made another album. And even though we're used to her darting madly between different worlds - as a gothic, red-frocked goddess one moment, a squalling noise-botherer the next - White Chalk is still quite a shock. This opening bang-bang piano figure is like The Supremes' Baby Love - or Amy Winehouse's Back to Black if you'd rather - put through a bone-white filter.
0.59 And here's another strange thing. We generally know PJ for her belly-deep vocals, full of fire, blaze and brimstone. This tiny, nervous voice seems to come from someone else entirely. "The devil wanders into my soul," she sings. Her high register is like a tense infant's, and the shaky zither that accompanies it only heightens the tension.
1.39 But here's her roar. "Come! Come! Come here at once!" It's the call of a spoilt child, a terrified soul and an impatient lover all at once. Yet a sad girlishness seeps through, Polly's Phil Spector-style backing vocals sounding like ghosts from another time, tapping Kathy-like on the window.


0.10 Here's the joanna again, its high notes sharp and icy. Thinking through Polly's catalogue, her music has rarely placed its focus on the ivory keys. In the early 1990s, on Dry, Rid Of Me and 4-Track Demos, Polly's sound was all about the guitar and how to make it bare its teeth. 1995's To Bring You My Love was about orchestral swampiness, and although parts of Is This Desire?, Stories From The City... and Uh Huh Her played with gentler textures, there's never been this sort of delicacy - or frailty - to Polly's sound before. This riff rattles like the sound of quivering teeth on a cold winter's morning.
0.27 "Dear darkness, dear darkness, won't you cover, cover me - again?" What a sad, sad phrase. It makes you worry for the girl.
1.13 But, fret not, she's got company - long-time collaborator John Parrish, singing backing vocals in his warm, soft tenor. Although the words that emerge from his mouth - "around the throat of the one I love" - aren't the most warming, I grant you.


0.46 The piano winds and whirls as Polly treads through mystical groves in heavy boots. This sounds like a Lewis Carroll story - curious and curiouser.
2.21 "Teach me MUMMY/How to GROW!" It's a wide-eyed and terrifying phrase. Hounds Of Love-era Kate Bush would be a good reference for this stuff, if Bush's spookiness wasn't always surrounded with sweetness and playfulness. As Polly's vocals wheel and wail, sweetness and playfulness are very far away.


1.41 You may have heard this song already. It's Polly's new single. In it, deeper piano notes pound, the ceiling moves in time, and "the mind is alive/Conscious of nothing but the will to survive". It's so ridiculously chart-unfriendly that if it bothers the hit parade, Satan's working at the BPI.


0.16 White chalk hills will rub Polly's bones and stick to her shoes here. I want to put a fez on, Tommy Cooper-style, and go "don't go on the hills, then!" But that would be inappropriate.
2.27 "Dorset's cliffs lead to the sea/Where I walked our unborn child in me". Unborn children have cropped up in Polly's music before, on 1995's Down By The Water most memorably, a period when Polly was not at her happiest. This album so far suggests the same. John seems to have disappeared too, so she's not got company. And our girl's not referred to home so vividly before, making it a reference point for such deep, engulfing sorrow. The twin echoes of the place Polly was born, and the ancient carvings of the past make this title track even more heartbreaking.


0.16 "Please don't reproach me for how empty my life has become." I am starting to think that this is the saddest album I have ever heard. There's the way Polly's voice is crushing itself willingly, then there's the sheer weight of the lyrics. This record belongs to a different musical world than Joy Division's Closer, say, but it shares a similar mood - a horribly candid exposure of agony and despair. It reminds me of Wuthering Heights the novel much more than Wuthering Heights the song - it teems with details of overwhelming desolation, rather than floaty theatrics.


0.23 Funnily enough, though, this song, called Silence, has more blood in its cheeks - plus a brisk, soft, shuffling drumbeat, and a more vivid bangy piano.
1.41 Although Polly's singing, "Though you never wanted me/Anyway." At least there's an element of anger in her voice, which is the first step towards dealing with heartbreak. It is. (Although, yes, I should stop trying to be Polly's agony aunt and carry on being a heartless music critic.)
2.22 "SIGH-LENCE...SIGH-LENCE...SIGH-LENCE!" You tell them, Pols! You TELL 'EM!


1.25 This is a song about Polly missing her grandmother. Her voice has skirted that dangerous line between affecting tense soprano and strangled kitten so far, but for the first time here, the cat seems to be winning.


0.15 "Hit her with a hammer, teeth smashed in, red tongues twitching, look inside her skeleton". Nasty stuff. Still, if you look behind the horror movie imagery, here's a great metaphorical description of Polly's relationship with her baby grand. She bangs and she crashes, letting the keys shiver and flame. Tori Amos thinks she's like this, but she hasn't got half this talent.
1.26 "Daddy's in the corner, rattling his keys. Mummy's in the doorway trying to leave." This family's degenerating quicker than the Addams.
2.06 "Nobody's listening - Oh God, I miss you, oh GOD, I MISS you." That's decided it. This is the saddest thing I've ever heard.


0.33 "Farewell my friends, farewell my dear ones." Now this is playing like a suicide note. And I've run out of tissues.


3.10 "In my own heart every tree is broken. The first tree will not blossom, the second will not grow, the third is almost fallen since you betrayed me so." The zither shivers, Polly wails like she did on The Dancer, the last track of To Bring You My Love, and White Chalk stops as it started - suddenly, sharply and inconsolably. Twelve years after she first wandered into the territories of loneliness, Polly's found the heart of darkness - and she seems to have found her genius there too.


Imagine the saddest thing you've ever heard, then douse it in tears, swathe it in heartbreak, and drop it into the seventh circle of hell. Yes, it's that moving and, also, marvellous.

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