PJ Harvey - White Chalk

Bill Cummings 02/10/2007

Rating: 4/5

Following up the inconsistent, visceral, bluesy rock of 2004's “Uh Huh Her” was always going to be somewhat of a challenge for P J Harvey, an artist who has always reflected her constantly evolving artistic expression through the use of music. From feminist riot girl, award winning arty solo artist, to commercial rock vixen, her sound is like a barometer of her life. Her new album "White Chalk" is another step change. Having only recently learnt the rudimentary arts of the piano, Harvey has bravely chosen to make it the primary instrumental spine of her new album. Its actually this lack of ability that makes this such a skeletal piece, the stark simplicity with which she hammers home each note that allows her nuanced vocals to come to the forefront. "White Chalk" is the sound of Thomas Hardy's literature, the Cliffs of Dover, the austere sound of Victorian England, the sound of glimmers of events of Harvey's inner life being thrown into focus, a confessional mood piece that grows upon each listen, each layered tale of unrequited love, each restless ghost from her past, each half heard myth.

Opener “The Devil” sets the tone for the album, from the first stark insistently prodding notes, its shrill vocal dynamics imbue a creeping sense of dark introspection and clawing longing ("Come! Come!"), followed up by the more sedate “Dear Darkness” the foreboding envelopes the listener, its tinkling pianos and lonely cowering vocals are the cold withering hand on your shoulder, the whispering voice in your ear at midnight. There are echoes here of the demons that first emerged on her previous albums “Rid Of Me” and "This Is Desire," but at its heart, this is the sound of a maturing P J Harvey stripped bare.

If the Mercury award winning rock chic of “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” was Harvey's commercial highpoint, “White Chalk” is its brooding, widow sister, looking from the window on it with disdain, only new single “When Under Ether” even hints at any kind of accessible melody: its spiritual, dark sway and weather beaten vocal, the evocative comedown tones sigh, bringing to mind the ghostly clarity of Cat Power's best work.

While the title track introduces the first strums of whirring guitar, and a solitary distorted church vocal full of 'ooo's' reminiscent of Patti Smith's latter work, much like a series of dreamlike snapshots of her sub consciousness, White Chalk (a reference to Shakespeare's King Lear?) is now the metaphor for Harvey's crumbling sense of self (“I know these chalk hills will rot my bones”), utter melancholia consuming her as she wanders over dark landscapes still carrying her “unborn child”, ending with the stark almost religious piece of self loathing imagery (“Scratch my palms, there's blood on my hands”). Linked to this is the harrowing confessional of “Broken Harp,” an imagined dialogue between protagonist and unresponsive lover which begins starkly (“Please don't reproach me/For how empty my life has become”) with twitching Kantele harp strings plucked, before moving awkwardly towards autobiography and the death of her unborn child (“Something metal tearing my stomach out”), before desperately pleading for forgiveness.

It's not all successful however, and occasionally the clinical style jars when Harvey's instrumental limitations are shown up by a lack of dynamics. While the lyrics of “Grow Grow Grow” push uneasily over the border into clichéd pagan imagery, as Harvey asks for help from “Mommy” to make someone love her, it's all too similar in structure to the closing track of the album, only less successful. And It's the closer “The Mountain” that is truly the highlight of the entire album, aching and spine tingling, the sound of betrayal walking across the moon lit edges of a cliff as trees sway and eagles fly, it's the quite fantastic classical piano sweeps that quicken the heart along with beguiling vocals that open out into full high pitched swoops, bringing to mind the vocal range of Kate Bush. It's stunning.

If you're looking for another accessible commercial rock album, then you will be disappointed. If, however, you place P J Harvey alongside Nick Cave, Radiohead and Bjork at the forefront of talented musical artists attempting to push their own boundaries, then “White Chalk” is another complex piece in that jigsaw. In a world of singer songwriters out to please the listener with comfortable melodies, Harvey's "White Chalk" is the polar opposite: difficult, mysterious, stark and at times quite harrowing yet in the main, an utterly captivating album.