Review Summary: Piano replaces guitar, resignation replaces anger, and PJ Harvey comes up trumps.
Around 13 years ago, a major British music magazine ran a joint feature on PJ Harvey, Bjork, and Tori Amos. These three women, let us not forget, were major figures in rock in the mid-90s, each with a disctinctive sound, each with almost unbroken critical acclaim. At the time, this article could quite easily have been seen as symptomatic of lazy journalism, or even sexism, but what makes it interesting now is the career trajectories of each of these women since the article was published. Bjork went on to release nothing but masterpieces until Vespertine
, and ever since then she's been unable to recapture that magic, releasing two confusing, occasionally brilliant, mostly mediocre albums in Medulla
. Tori Amos has been similarly lost since From The Choirgirl Hotel
, with a sequence of bloated, over-ambitious albums that have seen her best work buried amidst a sea of makeweights with uninviting titles like "The Power of Orange Knickers".
PJ Harvey, on the other hand, has yet to release an album that has been met with wide critical indifference. In many people's eyes, she didn't even release her meisterwork until 2001, with Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
. With only one album release since then, PJ Harvey has been unarguably the most critically successful of the three women since the article. And yet, for whatever reason, she recieves the least coverage. Every Bjork album revieves a great fanfare, and each new Tori Amos album generates a wave of internet chatter from fans desperate to either defend or attack it.
Not that it matters, of course. Unlike Tori Amos and (arguably) Bjork, PJ Harvey's lack of disappointing material means that she has long since passed the point where she has anything to prove. The gleefully messy Uh Huh Her
was perhaps the first album to ackowledge that; it met approval with her hardcore fans, and slightly indifference from the critics who noted that it would please her existing fans without winning any new ones. It would be reasonable to assume, then, that Harvey had reached a point in her career where she could continue to release albums that would both fully indulge her creative urges and please her fans. White Chalk
proves that to be something of a half truth.
It's been widely reported by now that White Chalk
is an album dominated by piano. It's true. I mean, there's even a song called "The Piano", in case you didn't get the hint. There is no distorted, bluesy guitar anywhere in sight, meaning that any fans arriving at this album hoping for something similar to Rid of Me
, or even Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
, will be sorely disappointed. Perhaps more importantly, the anger characteristic of Harvey's best work has been replaced here by a mood that is consistently resigned and regretful ('Can you forgive me?' and 'Please don't reproach me for how empty my life has become' in "Broken Harp", 'Oh God, I miss you' in "The Piano"), but never depressed. That, more than anything, makes this album work - eleven tracks of relentless piano-soundtracked misery would have been too much to bear. Instead, Harvey leaves gaps for the listener to fill, never impressing her mood upon proceedings. It's a move that demonstrates both Harvey's talent and experience, and has earned enthuasiastic comparisons to Nico.
Harvey's voice, too, has changed. Now higher and more strained, it constantly threatens to crack under the slightest pressure. Even on earlier tracks like "Missed", where her voice reached its highest register, it didn't quite as thin as it does for large chunks of this album. This is a good thing, mind - her voice is still a pleasant thing to listen to, and her stylized singing does much to draw you into the album's world. As a matter of fact, this could be considered her best vocal performance - her bruised inflections here add much to the meaning of these songs.
There's not a weak track here, and on close inspection each song could be singled out as a highlight if debased from the album. The dark, descriptive "When Under Ether" could have slotted onto Little Earthquakes
quite nicely, and it boasts possibly the album's strongest lyrics. "White Chalk" sees the album move away from the piano stool temporarily, with acoustic guitar and banjo offering an accompaniment to Harvey's heavily echoed and compressed vocals. These two songs hint at the topic of abortion without outright suggesting it - lines like 'the unborn child in me' and 'conscious of nothing but the will to survive' linger suggestively in the air. Even the next song, "Broken Harp", contains a lyric about 'something metal....tearing my stomach out'. These are the stand-outs when taken in context (alongside opener "The Devil"), and are likely to be what you turn to if you've not got the time to listen to the full album. Yet, much of the album disappears into the background without a fight if you're not prepared to give it your full attention, and while that's arguably a necessary flaw, it's a flaw nonetheless. But with that, it's basically the only flaw I can point to on an album this consistently good, and consistently affecting.
Quality is almost irrelevant here; there will be people, as much down to genre and personal preference as the power of these songs, who will claim that this is PJ Harvey's finest work yet. White Chalk
will also be palmed off by some as a genre experiment that doesn't present the 'true' Polly Jean in all her raging Rid of Me
glory, and that liking this album is more a matter of liking the piano as an instrument than liking Harvey. Both groups may have a point, but all you need to know is that this album is quite unlike anything else in the PJ Harvey catalogue, and the sonic relocation does absolutely nothing to dim her power.