PJ Harvey, White Chalk CD review: First Listen

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On her earliest work – i.e., the bone-rattling feral-punk found on Rid of Me and DryPJ Harvey used scraping guitars and the wild-eyed edges of her voice to announce her intentions. Her overt sexuality and brash declarations of femininity and womanhood were confrontational, raw and exposed – perpetuating the personal-is-political ethos of riot grrrl without necessarily being part of the scene.

More important, Harvey didn’t find the topics of love, sex and desire mutually exclusive, as the slinky moods of 1995’s To Bring You My Love – and, later, the buoyant gloss-rock mash-notes of 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea -- announced. Recognizing and intimately discussing the complex interrelationship between those three emotions – in terms of a relationship, or perhaps not – elevated Harvey’s music and discourse beyond her peers. (And, in fact, paved the way for folks such as Cat Power and Joanna Newsom.)

After 2004’s sluggish (although beautiful-sounding) Uh Huh Her, Harvey seemed to regroup and go back to basics for her new studio album, White Chalk. In fact, the eleven-song collection nods to the stripped-down aspects of her early career: Largely a piano-and-voice album, Chalk finds solace and strength in desolation and ascetic arrangements. (Harvey recently decided to learn how to play the piano, which perhaps explains the almost-childlike tone of the music – which is exquisite in its innocence.) Long-time Harvey collaborators Eric Drew Feldman and John Parish contribute to this sparseness, as does percussionist Jim White of Australian chamber-goth act the Dirty Three. (The latter act has ties to one-time Harvey duet partner Nick Cave, whose gothic shadow informs Chalk quite a bit.)

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And, like Dry or Rid of Me, Chalk’s overwhelming characteristic is Harvey’s voice – although not in the way one would expect. Instead of the in-your-face vocal snarls conveyed by past works, she stretches her voice to its upper range, sounding like a fallen angel in mourning. On Chalk, she uses the fragility of her voice to convey vulnerability; specifically, the Siren-like soprano croons and wordless wails throughout rely on the contrast between sounds and silence for emotional impact. Regret and remorse, instead of defiance and confrontation, are the overwhelming traits.

It’s a very different sort of vulnerability and method of expression than listeners are used to hearing from Harvey – one rooted in absolute personal exposure. Harvey's music has never sounded more naked and revealing. This is more figurative than literal, mind you; it's a confessional album without overtly being Harvey's confession, involving conspiratorial music that resonates because of intimacy, whether real or perceived.

The ethereal effect is closest in spirit to 1998's Is This Desire? – and even Bjork’s Vespertine, the closest comparison to the album. But it’s also jarring to hear Harvey so airy and weightless, rooted not in brashness but in utter emotional exposure. Critics – especially cynical ones -- might accuse Harvey of losing her edge, of becoming “weak” by embracing such vulnerability. But Chalk draws power from this transparency, and is wholly bewitching, an ephemeral collection of tunes that flies by too fast.

Here’s a track-by-track analysis:

“The Devil”: Insistent barroom piano chords and angelic, wordless croons conjure the Edward Scissorhands score, of soft pillows of powdery snow falling from the sky. The layering of Harvey’s voice – a device used throughout Chalk – is eerie and effective, leading up to her almost-frantic exhortation of “Come! Come here at once!” Simple chords at the end emerge as very cinematic. Oddly catchy.

“Dear Darkness”: With another simple piano melody (again, quite wintry and bell-like) this song would fit seamlessly on Tori Amos’ Under the Pink. Harvey’s vocals are airy and weary; contrasting male vocals add a rumbling, ominous undertone that’s unspeakably sad.

“Grow Grow Grow”: Very baroque and chamber-music-like. Echoing Harvey vocals ebb and sway like a ship tossed at sea, as piano waterfalls cascade behind her. (I think I hear a deep chorus of strings as well.) The wails resemble the classical Siren, with her reaching into her top-most range.

“When Under Ether”: The first single. Unsurprisingly, Harvey sings most in the range we’re used to hearing. The midnight-purple piano chords resemble those on Tori Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel. Not as catchy as the first three songs on Chalk, oddly enough, even though it’s more linear of a song. Here's a video of the song, filmed in Denmark:

“White Chalk”: Harvey sounds like she’s singing from under water (or under ground), as simple (see a theme?) minor-chord acoustic guitar riffs strum behind her, again very baroque. The song builds and builds until just after its halfway point, when harmonica, piano and drums pop in for a mournful march, before subsiding again just as quickly.

“Broken Harp”: Begins with Harvey singing the lines “Please don’t reproach me for how empty my life has become” a cappella. What sounds like a (surprise) harp chimes in. By its end, her voice is layered together in a chorus of, “Can you forgive me?” with emphasis on the “you” that’s pronounced with the quirkiness of Bjork. Like a hymn of repentance.

“Silence”: Brushed percussion spins hypnotically behind brisk piano quivers. “I freed myself from my family, I freed myself from work, I freed myself, I freed myself…” Harvey sings in a normal range, although higher harmonies float on top – and the end of the song features a giant, multi-layered tear-inducing chorus of Harvey singing “silence,” with a crumpled ache in her voice.

“To Talk to You”: Ghostly and chill-inducing, a slow minor-key dirge. Almost séance-like because Harvey starts off by crooning, “Oh, grandmother, I miss you.” The song unfolds slowly, but never drags, thanks to subtle brushed percussion. Harvey’s voice follows the chord resolution note-for-note, adding to the spooky atmosphere.

“The Piano”: Heartbeat drums bleed into a sound effect that, bizarrely, resembles a cellphone ringing – which all lead into a swelling chorus where Harvey moans, “Oh, God, I miss you!” first, and then, later, “Nobody’s listening!” (Both sayings also intertwine at times, to great effect.) Panicked percussion and piano add to the nervous, hand-wringing atmosphere.

“Before Departure”: Another somber piano-centric number. “Goodbye, my friend” is a distinctive early lyric. Very, very sparse, with a piano-solo bridge and what sounds like a harmonium adding faraway, farewell sounds.

“The Mountain”: Poignant harp and piano abound, driven by unspecified feelings of ominous distress, like music in a horror film just before you know something awful is going to happen. Ends with Harvey unleashing absolutely horrifying shrieks, as if demons were being exorcised. Unsettling, but a perfect way to end the album.

-- Annie Zaleski

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