White Chalk | PJ Harvey (Island)

wc_cover.jpgWhite Chalk is a deceivingly stripped-down album which finds Harvey painting chilling stories that settle uncomfortably in the head, often coming back to haunt the listener long after the disc has stopped revolving.

 

 

 

 

Win this CD. Click HERE

White Chalk, the eighth studio album from PJ Harvey, is a lovely diversion from the sonic and homemade predecessor Uh Huh Her. It combines her many strengths as a storyteller who can mine emotions and present them in a simple, stripped-down format. The brief album features frequent collaborator John Parrish as producer (who, with Flood, produced To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?) along with Eric Drew Feldman and the mighty Jim White (The Dirty Three) on drums. Harvey also reveals a new talent on the album with her piano playing—an instrument she learned for the album.

From her beginnings in the early ’90s, Harvey has been a fiercely independent and creative songwriter. She is able to beautifully summarize events both memorable and tragic in three to four minutes, often leaving indelible audio burns in the process. Her career is littered with perfect encapsulations of rage ("Rid of Me," "Who the Fuck," and "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore"), joy ("You Said Something," "Victory"), and exceptionally nasty ideas ("Down by the Water"). Harvey, above all is an exceptional storyteller. White Chalk is a deceivingly stripped-down album which finds Harvey painting chilling stories that settle uncomfortably in the head, often coming back to haunt the listener long after the disc has stopped revolving.

The album features Harvey often singing in a higher pitch that is, at times, discomforting, but is an effect that makes the appearance of her normal voice all that more reassuring. The falsetto is the storyteller, the young, often innocent girl who appears in many of her songs. The first single  "When Under Ether" unfurls a story of a young woman in hospital almost assuredly having an abortion (Harvey rarely strays from the challenge of controversial material). The way the song describes the ceiling moving, the will to survive (hers?) and the eventual outcome of the surgery is simple and beautiful. "The Piano" starts off with the line, "Hit her with a hammer, teeth smashed in/ red tongue twitching, look insider her skeleton." The tale of domestic discord is both somber and engrossing. Harvey’s words and presentation mixed with Parrish and Flood’s deft handling (and, in some cases, willingness to let Harvey stand aurally naked) leave indelible bleak images.

"Silence," which acts as a high point for the album and comes closest to euphoria (it almost sounds like a Sufjan Stevens song), is actually an ode to drawing in to oneself—the ultimate security and self-defense: "All those places, where I recall/ the memories that grip me and pin me down/ I go to these places, pretending to think/ and think of nothing, though anticipate/ And somehow expect you will find me there/ that by some miracle, you’d be aware." As with most songs by PJ Harvey, the subject is left bereft and we are left floating somewhat sadly in her lovely ennui.

I must admit I had to listen to this album several times before I actually warmed to it. I think it was an adjustment I had to make in how I listened rather than how the stories were presented. PJ Harvey has always been a Siren for me. Her music and her intent make made each new album an exercise in anticipation and something to be acted upon. The direction of this album is one that forces the listener to slow down in a manic world: to contemplate. That contemplation is well worth the listener’s time. Harvey has always been one for this sort of interaction and mental exercise. As she said in "The Letter" from Uh Huh Her, "Who is left that writes these days?/ You and me/ We’ll be different."

Consider White Chalk a letter from PJ Harvey to you, and do feel lucky that she has entrusted these brilliant bits of gothic lore to you, a trusted friend. A | Jim Dunn

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply