Tuesday, 25 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 8: 'White Chalk' (2007)

‘Not having an immediate impact’ wasn’t an accusation that could ever be levelled against White Chalk. It was as though the musical world was minding its own business, felt a tap on the shoulder, and turned round to be faced with a ghost. Harvey abandoned her guitar for a piano and her vocal gymnastics for a high-pitched wail, part child, part wraith, vocalising a set of unsettling, inconclusive glimpses into realms of the uncanny that seemed to be unanchored from time or place. It was utterly different from anything she, or anyone, had done before. It was sui generis, somewhere between chamber music and folk, but neither. PJH had triumphantly reasserted her claim as a musical innovator, who never rested and who never let her audience relax completely either.

Longstanding fans who’d been following the lady with the guitar for years gulped and decided not to listen any more: not my reaction. Chilly and unwelcoming as this aural landscape was, it was one I felt quite at home in. I was exhilarated at her willingness to strike out into the unknown. Although only the title track explicitly refers to the Dorset landscape, it was the sense that that was where this music came from that hooked me. ‘White chalk south against time/White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme/I walk the valley by the Cerne/On a path cut fifteen hundred years ago/And I know these chalk hills will rot my bones’. If I’d wanted the tender, tough ‘The Desperate Kingdom of Love’ from Uh Huh Her at my funeral, here was a song to join it.

But what I missed was the deeper shift in our heroine which White Chalk signalled. For publicity and performances Polly had herself sewn and buttoned into black or white pseudo-Victorian gowns: the white ones were scrawled with song lyrics, as though she herself was erased, submerged within the dire world she had created. For some time in interviews she’d been talking about ‘getting out of the way of the songs’, and this was the symbolic expression of that sentiment. Ceasing to talk about anything but the work, she began to disappear into it. It’s a strange paradox in the spiritual life that just as you are settled and mature as an individual you discover your next task is to relinquish that bounded sense of selfhood within other commitments, and that this is what love really means. White Chalk was the starting-point of Polly’s self-disassembly, giving herself over consciously to something greater than she was, although it took a while for me to realise it. Whether, in such terms, she realised it herself, who can tell. 

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