Wednesday, 3 October 2007

P J HARVEY: The Mountain

My first instinctive thought when I heard about White Chalk was: she’s trying to do a Cat Power with her prepared pianos and ruminatively mournful lyrics. But P J Harvey is one of the few artists whose records I still instinctively buy on the basis of trust. Usually she works best at extremes – the labiodental expectorations of Rid Of Me or the unsettled silences of Is This Desire? – and I must say I’m glad that she’s decided to pursue the path opened up by the latter, for me still her most undervalued record. Such gladness, however, is not necessarily balanced out by the will to listen repeatedly, because as stark records go White Chalk is blacker than Dylan Thomas’ Bible; ancient sounding tack pianos, a “broken harp,” caressed or singed zithers, space and crusted pauses, barely coaxing itself over half an hour. And there are scores to settle, with families who didn’t want her, with grandmothers she misses, hammers into heads, conveyor belts and Dorset, a future as hopeless as Tess’ or Jude’s.

“The Mountain” is the final track and offers climax but no redemption. Pianos ripple a riff which would have given Kate E Mellower or Kate E Turnstile a hit in a different, whiter arrangement, but Harvey simply lets the riff ripple into its own stagnant pool. She stretches the words – the eagle calling the faltering soldier on the mountain, prey or saviour? – in a manner familiar to anyone who knows the Julie Tippetts of Sunset Glow. As the keyboard refractions intensify and an inhuman bass undertow appears, however, she proclaims “By the mountain I feel nothing, for in my own heart, every tree is broken.” The zither appears to be slashed with a Stanley knife, and finally firm but minimalist drums enter as she screams to sky and ocean alike, “Since you betrayed me so” in a voice high and desperate enough to puncture the stars, the music pulsating with etiolated memories of “Beatrix” by the Cocteau Twins – that other otherness – finishing with a sopranino death rattle squeal of “Since you”…and then cutoff. Even then, though, you know she’ll be back moaning about her hairdresser on the next album. Like Wyatt or Walker or Coleman, I stick by her, if not to her.