PJ HARVEY – White Chalk
Polly Jean Harvey is that rarest of artists whose penchant for immaculate reinvention regularly outreaches even her own considerable sales figures. A sculptor, sometimes actor and one the most singular, recognizable musical artists of her time, Harvey and her art know few bounds. When 2004’s misunderstood Uh Huh Her disappointed commercially her appetite for realizing new artistic ambitions didn’t fade with it. Still, by 2007, fifteen years into Harvey’s career, there seemed be few fertile genres left worth sowing; a shortage of rocks to peek under for perfect shadows. But on her seventh studio album, White Chalk, Harvey finds resonance in an unexpected place: a new sound. One that, knowing the body of work that precedes it, is unconscionably ethereal.
Even that’s almost too obvious a descriptor for such elegantly damaged, inward-looking piano ballads. Elegies that cast a spotlight on the inner laments of rock’s once-punkest poetess.
The sound is clearly, consistently smaller than those Harvey has filled in the past. But White Chalk‘s psychological piano compositions are no less compelling. The spare plinkings paradoxically amplify the delicate horrors in her lyricism. It’s fascinating to hear such hushed, cryptic illuminations of the dark moods she once breathed fire expelling.
Harvey has always expressed disdain toward overtures that her songs are even remotely autobiographical but there are moments on White Chalk where you sense that, the further she steps from her most comfortable musical forms, and the more she imagines herself in new lights, the more intriguing the opportunity to reveal bits of herself becomes. “I freed myself from family, I freed myself from work, I freed myself… and remained alone,” she sings on “Silence.” Without those associations is she, finally, herself free? We wonder. And what of the wedding gown she wears, eyes so focused, on the album’s cover? Listening to White Chalk‘s whispers, it’s hard to shake the sense that the inspirations behind these songs are anything but her most intimate. Perhaps in years; perhaps ever.
Of course, just as her songs will never simply be regurgitations of personal affairs or even ruminations on autobiographical details, their dynamics are not exclusively mournful. Her quiet coos are too expressive; the deceptively modest arrangements too full of leading pathways. “Before Departure,” the album’s pensive denouement, strikes its (hushed) notes with precision and balance; “Broken Harp” begs forgiveness through lilting melodies and almost southern accompaniment; and because of the sheer emotional power that coaxes Harvey’s airy vocal into a compelling cry, even the buoyant chamber waltz of “The Devil” proves far more spacious and shadowy than its simple stamping rhythm initially suggests.
The power within her so-subtle songwriting may ultimately ensure these songs’ lasting majesty. But it’s Harvey’s ghastly moan – a genuine revelation all these years into her chameleonic vocal career – that carries the album. Never is she content to merely achieve transcendence. She must haunt us, informing White Chalk with an undeniably erotic subtext that transforms these fragmented ellipses into something simmering and tangible. Something inescapable. “Dear Darkness” shrouds unspoken desires in restrained imagery, building slightly behind banjo and light piano touches before gently collapsing into a plaintive, potent anti-climax. The title track, too, arrives this way, incorporating some of the disc’s most lavish instrumentation (basic percussion, some harmonica and a modest string swell) without ever blurring Harvey’s vision or encroaching on her isolation. “White chalk-poor, scattered around. Scratch my claws, there’s blood on my hands,” she confesses. Never before has she killed us so softly.
This is a profound departure from the incendiary albums that formed our first impressions of PJ Harvey. It’s also a stark evolutionary leap beyond the comparatively soft-edged pop of (1998′s) Is This Desire? and the relatively straightforward sexiness of (2000′s) Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. This is a minimalist whisper of solidarity, luck, loneliness and perhaps even legacy that speaks volumes about one of contemporary music’s most consistently alluring, restless and relentlessly inventive souls.
You can argue that PJ Harvey wrote her masterpiece years ago.
Who’s to say she can only have one?