PJ Harvey
White Chalk



September 18th, 2007 | 51 replies

Release Date: 2007 | Tracklist

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 and Volta. 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.

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user ratings (302)

Comments:Add a Comment 
September 19th 2007


I didn't even know she had a new album

September 19th 2007


Man, I cant wait to hear this... review is pretty great.

I have only heard "When Under Ether" and it's a beautiful track, I have very high expectations for the rest of the album.

The Jungler
September 19th 2007


I didn't even know she had a new album
This sounds cool, the song she did with Thom Yorke was one of my most played tracks last year, but I've still yet to listen to a full length CD. I'll definitley get on that. Good review, of course.

September 19th 2007


Really intrigued to hear the new album.

Really good review, man! Makes me want to hear it even more.

September 22nd 2007


I've never really gotten into her, but this sounds like it could be good. Really great review.This Message Edited On 09.22.07

September 26th 2007


Album Rating: 4.5

I was really excited for this record, but can't afford it yet. Very good review

October 16th 2007


This album is pretty great.

May 14th 2008


Album Rating: 4.0

One of her best albums.

True it doesn't paint the full picture of her talents. If you forget what YOU expect PJ to sound like, it's a wonderful wonderful album. One of few recent albums I had on repeat, and last piano chords of the last song flow very nicely into the chords that open the album.This Message Edited On 05.14.08

September 6th 2008


Album Rating: 4.0

Got to agree with rating, its just about really really great.

March 8th 2010


Creepy album but good

March 16th 2011


Great review and even if my comments is late, like 3 years after you reviewed it, i disagree with one point in your review "

"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 and Volta.
Medulla is brilliant if you have participated in a choir and understand how it is hard to have such amazing "chords" and god it sounds so good to my ear. Volta is just a more "mainstream" Bjork and her weakest work but still a good album. Music is subjective.

November 24th 2011


Album Rating: 4.0

Sidenote: Björk's Vespertine is arguably her best album and Medulla is extremely underrated. Just very

alien to those expecting something different.

I'd be bored if she continued to do leaps between the albums, like in th 90's.

And what about PJ's "Uh-huh her"? It wasn't THAT good of an album, compared to earlier work.

May 11th 2012


Album Rating: 4.0

This is great.

September 11th 2014


Album Rating: 4.5

This album is so different, yet strong as hell. I've only heard it twice in full, so it may be a 5 upon further listens. Literally no

major flaws to be found. Only To Bring You My Love seems to surpass it for me.

September 11th 2014


Album Rating: 4.5

Whoops double post.

January 14th 2016


I dig this, hits all the feels, obliterates me, The Devil and Dear Darkness couple is unbelievable
Ah fuck it it's probs her best record to me

January 14th 2016


Album Rating: 4.5

Dear Darkness is one of my favorite songs ever agreed.

January 14th 2016


the lyrics man, they hit too hard

April 3rd 2016


Album Rating: 4.5

This is wonderfully haunting.

April 3rd 2016


Album Rating: 4.5

:P Yes

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