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.

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Comments (18)
  1. Adam  |   Posted on Sep 13th, 2007 0

    Whoa, with Foo Fighters, Steve Earle and Springsteen all having been leaked recently I forgo to even look for this. Rock!

  2. when i saw her at the new yorker festival last year, she was previewing a few of these songs on the piano. i’m so glad that she didn’t change them too much. the album is gorgeous and haunting. it doesn’t seem as much of a departure as a natural progression for her. some of it, lyrically, reminds me of ‘to bring you my love.’

  3. Dw Dunphy  |   Posted on Sep 13th, 2007 0

    Haven’t heard this yet, but I have to tell you, the odds are on this being a winner. It’s been that kind of year. With Springsteen’s “Magic”, Knopfler’s “Kill To Get Crimson” and Crowded House’s “Time On Earth” it’s been a very good year for established artists.

    DwD

  4. ME  |   Posted on Sep 13th, 2007 0

    this album is magnificient….

    i don’t understand why people talk about Springsteen ( and even more about shit like knopfler) his album suck !!! Some things should stay in the 80′s.

    Back to Pj > buy this album ! Probably one of the 5 best albums of 2007 if not the best

  5. penny  |   Posted on Sep 13th, 2007 0

    i think this album is a bit difficult to listen to because she is SOOOO miserable on it. It’s heartbreaking to hear about how she’s still alone after all these years, yearning for her loved ones to return to her. Of course, the songs could be character scketches….but i have a feeling it’s the real deal. I miss the energy of Is This Desire or Stories from the City. But her voice has never been this high and delicate.

  6. In love with the 4 tracks I have been able to find, “the Devil” stands out, pounding piano, amazing lyrics, can not wait for Beacon show. she is an artist that you have to forget what her last album was like and not compare or you will be dissapointed in some way, it took me a while, but I get it, she is amazing.

  7. Richie  |   Posted on Sep 13th, 2007 0

    It’s a nice set of short, stately, melancholy songs, and a worthwhile departure from her usual sound, but overall I don’t think it quite adds up to being one of her best albums.. just a bit too sketchy in places & not quite enough substance there.. it’s still a rewarding listen though, and I’m glad she decided to try and branch out.

  8. hk  |   Posted on Sep 13th, 2007 0

    This album is stunning.

  9. Apexa  |   Posted on Sep 13th, 2007 0

    You can’t actually believe her songs are autobiographical, right? She says she writes all her songs as someone else or about someone – never about herself.

  10. Aurora  |   Posted on Sep 14th, 2007 0

    she takes inspiration from many sources, personal experiences, books, movies, photographs, anything. you never can tell !

    i love this new album, it is just strikingly beautiful. the devil and the piano are my favourites.

    GORGEOUS!!!

  11. Greg  |   Posted on Sep 14th, 2007 0

    I love almost everything PJ has done (though Is This Desire never worked for me as a whole)… but this new one, beyond three or four songs (like The Devil or, say, the Mountain — the bookends of the cd), never really works for me. Just too ethereal, and her voice is in an uncomfortable range most of the record. Maybe it will grow (I’m about 2.5 times through it) but I got a feeling it’ll end up on the growing spindle of cds that I should listen to again and again but … nah, I will probably spin the new Joe Henry again instead

  12. i agree with Richie’s post completely. there are some strong songs. my immediate favorite is “white chalk” by far. the others seem like they’ll take a little bit of time. i think its a good record but its not my instant new favorite or instant album of the year.

  13. You guys need to check this out.

    MARLI COPYCATS IN A FUNNY WAY ARTISTS LIKE TORI AMOS + BJÖRK

    Brazilian trash internet (joke) sensation Marli, already used Björk music style (and sample a lot of her songs). Now, she´s about to release an album copying Tori Amos Scarlet´s Walk concept (adaptating to brazilian reality) and use Amos´ samples.

    “Além do Arco-Íris” has “A Sorta Fairytale” sample. And “Daisy no Retrovisor” reminds “Amber Waves”.

    Check this out:
    http://www.myspace.com/marlispace

  14. jp  |   Posted on Sep 14th, 2007 0

    Stunning. I agree with teamjasen sbout “The Devil” being a standout track.

    I’m looking forward to the Beacon show more than just about any of the other shows coming up.

  15. Update: release date’s been pushed back a week.

  16. i’ve listened to this once. and i can already tell this is my favourite pj harvey album ever. and ive been a fan since day one.

  17. Thanks for the review, I’ll get my hands on the album!

  18. Leslie  |   Posted on Nov 17th, 2007 0

    I have been in awe of PJ Harvey since the beginning, and she always suprises me, pleasantly. This CD is beatiful, eerie, deeply emotional (as are all) an imperfect perfection. Every time I listen, I hear something I didn’t realize was there the time before. Rock on Ms. Polly!

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