I am about to write a review for a record that doesn’t exist. White Chalk is the new record by PJ Harvey, and my husband decided to buy it on vinyl. We played it and played it all weekend, thinking ‘this is the strangest thing we’ve ever heard.’ It sounded as though Harvey’s voice was weird, distorted, as though the piano was tinny, wild-west-out-of-tune. ‘Have they slowed her vocal down deliberately?’ we thought. Actually, the sheer strangeness of the sound, given the lyical content of the songs and the Victorian Gothic album cover, seemed perfect. I wrote in an email to a friend that I felt I had been in a dream this weekend, the kind from which you wake up crying ‘without knowing why.’
Actually, of course, the vinyl LP needs to be played at 45rpm, not 33, as we had been doing. Only, there was no indication on any part of the record or sleeve that this was the case. Apart from now feeling rather foolish about the mistake, I’m quite glad of the experience, not least because I haven’t stopped laughing for about the last twenty minutes. But I also feel I managed to somehow access the underbelly of the record: Harvey’s manliness emerged, as did the unbearable sadness and near insanity contained in the songs.
Harvey appears to have mutated now into a Bronte, as her album cover proves: her strange, manly beauty is reminiscent of Charlotte Gainsbourg in Jane Eyre, and the profile shot reminds me of portraits of Emily. That’s why the 33 version of White Chalk seems to show her hand: it’s the nasty dream submerged under the record, the lover mutating into the beloved, destroying herself in the process. It’s Jane becoming Rochester; Cathy becoming Heathcliff; alienated, lonely woman becoming demonic Byronic man.
Oh, and White Chalk at 45 promises to be superb too…