We posted “When Under Either” a month ago, mentioning our surprise at the understated, “wonderfully strange” choice for a first single. Turns out it’s just about the loudest moment on White Chalk, P.J. Harvey’s captivating eighth full-length, her first studio recording since 2004’s Uh Huh Her. Some people excel at higher volumes, stumble a bit when there’s no distortion to fall back upon. Then there are folks like Polly Jean Harvey who do both with such seeming ease, continually rewriting their own oeuvre in the process.
Relying mostly on solo piano, percussion, and her voice pitched to an airy strain (no snarls or growls), Harvey navigates the listener through 11 songs in just over 30 minutes. The collection, spare but fleshed out with understated accents, was recorded in London and co-produced with Flood and longtime collaborator John Parish. Additional sounds are provided by keyboardist/bassist Eric Drew Feldman and the Dirty Three/Cat Power drummer Jim White (wait, is it his chalk? … who knows, but his drums are pitch-perfect throughout).
Harvey, of course, stays front and center, casting a surprisingly fragile (but elastic, powerful) vocal presence: “Grown Grow Grom” blusters back ‘n’ forth from a ghostly chain gang to jaunty harpsichord classicism; the a cappella opening of “Broken Harp” — “Please, don’t reproach me for, for how empty my life has become” — is followed by the dry plucks of what sounds like a broken harp buttressed by slight distant horns. The absolutely gorgeous title track is an underwater, pastoral echo ballad (white chalk sticking to her shoes, a shaker consistent background noise) that opens to one of the record’s more baroque moments (harmonica, drums, piano, etc). “Dear Darkness” casts a slight, whispered male/female duet against a classical backing mini-choir. “Piano” casts goosebumps. Anyone hear some Fleetwood Mac in “Silence”?
Earlier we mentioned Harvey remaining at a low, high-pitched level throughout. Well, on “The Mountain,” all the trees are dying and, singing about betrayal, she wails banshee/Diamanda Galas-style over piano trills to close out the album. It’s a fairly startling exit after the rest of the whispered shadow play. We’re currently unpacking the lyrics, but as mentioned when we posted “When Under Ether,” there tends to be this focus on sickbeds, unborn/”unblessed” children disappearing in ether, bloody hands, memory. Then come those decaying trees plus teeth smashed with hammers, “ghostly fingers,” discordant families, and folks with hands around lovers’ throats.
We’re still digging in, so why not join us in putting on those earphones and starting your own investigation: White Chalk will certainly reward extra-close listens. Beautiful stuff.
White Chalk is out 9/25 on Island.