Sunday, October 28, 2007

WHITE CHALK by PJ Harvey

I first discovered Polly Jean Harvey with the release of her second album RID OF ME, which makes me a fan since 1993. That said, I sensed a redundancy on her previous album UH HUH HER that suggested she was running out of variations of swampy, venereal vamps to play on her electric guitar -- and new things worth saying in that well-worn musical mode. More than a mere surprise, her new album WHITE CHALK comes as a legitimate shock; though the lyrical concerns are familiar, it's musically extremely different to anything she has recorded before and thus bound to disappoint anyone who comes to this artist expecting to hear something specific and familiar.

An album that sounds more torn from the artist's brain and heart than her loins, WHITE CHALK is a collection of misty, mournful, pastoral, and often hypnotic piano-based songs offered with minimal instrumentation and uncharacteristically vulnerable, insistently feminine vocals. As suggested by the cover photo -- which one might imagine to be inspired by Jane Campion's film THE PIANO (the namesake of a song included on the album), or perhaps by a photo found in an antiques store -- WHITE CHALK tempts one to imagine that this is how a turn-of-the-20th-century PJ Harvey album might sound.
Lyrically, there is nothing on the album to root its songs in a more contemporary setting. Its title, shared with one of its songs, refers specifically to the white cliffs of Dover, which provide the setting for the elliptic story, and perhaps also to the white chalk outline drawn around a dead (and absent) body. As I understand from the lyrics, WHITE CHALK tells the tragic story of a young working-class woman who falls in love with a young man, discovers that she is with child after he has been summoned to war. When she learns that he has been killed in battle, she submits to an abortion, a traumatic experience that eventually robs her of her own will to live. It is a story that might unfold in the early 1900s or the early 2000s. WHITE CHALK hasn't been packaged as a "rock opera" or "song cycle," but like BLUEFINGER (the new album by Harvey's friend Black Francis -- and my favorite album of the year so far), that's effectively what it is.
On a musical level, which is how one experiences it most immediately, WHITE CHALK stands out immediately as one of those perverse, outré experiments that creep into the careers of most serious artists who, facing redundancy, want to know how far their talents really extend beyond the boundaries of the pigeonhole they've made for themselves. (I would include John Cale's masterpiece MUSIC FOR A NEW SOCIETY and Bob Dylan's NASHVILLE SKYLINE in this category, but also Neil Young's TRANS and James Brown's lounge record GETTING DOWN TO IT.)
Harvey's musical experimentations lead her to some surprising places. The album's opener, "The Devil", has a pronounced Morricone/Eurocult vibe that knocked me out of my chair from its opening seconds -- and her whispered soprano vocal came as yet another great surprise. A song like "White Chalk," too, could easily merge with the soundscape of a movie like WHO SAW HER DIE?, while the album's closer, "The Mountain," has all the swirling allure of an absorbing mystery, or perhaps a small human drama as viewed by a circling vulture. The latter is one of Harvey's great recordings and one that might only have been reached via this unusual route.
Though WHITE CHALK is a captivating listen, as its shock has worn off, I have doubts that it's as much of a growth spurt as it first seemed to be, or perhaps proposes to be. To go through the album, track by track, is akin to listening to a series of Chinese boxes: "Dear Darkness" is like the song inside "The Devil," and "Grow Grow Grow" is like the song inside "Dear Darkness." Things change with "When Under Ether," but repeated listenings forced the realization that it's essentially a piano reprise of TO BRING YOU MY LOVE's "Down By the Water." Indeed, the swampy mythos of that earlier album is somehow deeply entwined with the pastoral mythos explored here. Harvey achieves some beautiful moments on the album, usually etched with terror or regret, but its overall impact is weakened by having too many songs played in the same key and tentative cadence. The album lacks variety, as well as broadness and body; when it does branch out, it branches back to roads we understand (perhaps wrongly) the artist is striving to avoid. What's most important about it, finally, is that its musical contrariness has forced Harvey to find new ways to sing and instrumentalize, so it can't help but push her (and her listeners) into new realms of experience. This is an ambitious record without question, but less a destination than a means of reaching a destination, of making what PJ Harvey does best sound refreshed.
If I were Robert Christgau (whom I imagine will see this as "Harvey's Kate Bush or Tori Amos album"), I'd probably give WHITE CHALK a B + -- more for its bravery than its actual invention. I might rate it somewhat less favorably had it come from an artist who more frequently trawled in this métier. A B + is "very good," of course, but remember: this is an artist with at least three A or A- albums to her credit.
Thanks to Jeremy Richey, whose Moon in the Gutter notes on WHITE CHALK prompted these thoughts in response, which ran a bit longer than I'm willing to leave in anyone's Comments box. I've got a blog to feed, too.

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