"A voice comes to one in the dark.
Samuel Beckett (Company 1980).
....and here we have the voice of Polly Harvey. Stripped Bare.
Like the old woman in the rocking chair in Beckett's 'Rockaby';
alone listening to the cracked sound of her own voice.
Memory. Longing. Loss. Hope. Futility.
This is indeed a dark place but a place without artifice. The intimacy
at times almost unbearable.
These 11 songs are an extraordinary addition to Ms Harvey's canon.
Compressed, fleeting evocations; almost suffocating at times in their intensity.
The mood of the album is sustained throughout without respite.
Simple piano/guitar accompaniment, supported by uncluttered additional
instrumentation and vocals. The production unintrusive.
'Dear Darkness', 'When Under the Ether', 'Silence', 'The Piano',
and the superlative 'The Mountain' just some of the highpoints
in a work of claustrophobic genius.
A highpoint in the career of this hugely talented woman.
A small masterpiece indeed.
"And how better in the end labour lost and silence.
And you as you always were.
Samuel Beckett (Company 1980).
on 2 December 2012
PJ Harvey has been creating music for some time now and consistently releasing new material every few years. Three years on from "Uh Huh Her", PJ brings us "White Chalk", her eighth studio album. It is quite different from her previous albums at it has minimal instrumentation, is much more piano and vocal led and is very haunting.
With its manic and repetitious piano rhythm, the opening song "The Devil" is aptly titled and has a sombre vocal which makes this song even more disturbing. The creative and melancholic "Dear Darkness" has a gentle Folk quality to it whilst "Grow Grow Grow" combines the overall feel of the two first tracks to create another haunting composition. "When Under Ether" is more constructed and mellow but still very dark. The title track "White Chalk" has a much stronger Country Folk influence than the other songs and is well crafted. "Broken Harp" is a quiet vocal track with a bittersweet melody. "Silence" has chaotic vocal harmonies which make PJ sound like a woman possessed, but they seem to add clarity to the melody and it ends up being by far my favorite song on here. "To Talk To You" is very eerily evocative with drawn out vocal phrasing and that crazed piano note serving as the songs only rhythm. The following song "The Piano" has very disturbing lyrics (the opening line is "Hit Her With A Hammer"!) and adds to the weirdness of this release. "Before Departure" is a peaceful and mellow song amidst the chaos and anger whilst the final song "The Mountain" takes us back to the ghost-like Goth inspired overall vibe of "White Chalk" with manic piano chords and deep vocal humming combined with witch-like screaming. What a way to end on album...
"White Chalk" takes PJ Harvey to another level of strange and disturbing. There are moments on this release that are truly poignant and enchanting, but there are moments that are quite worrying and too erratic for my liking. I have spent quite some time listening to this album and still cannot quite make my mind up whether it is another one of her masterpieces or whether it is too far out there - I guess that is what makes it so interesting in the first place.
Finally, four albums later, I'm enthralled by the wonderous P.J. Harvey once more.
I thought her special brand of genius had been dulled but White Chalk is a return to total form and an utter joy.
Dry, Rid Of Me and Four-Track demos were three of my all time favourites but I haven't truly connected with anything of PJ's since then.
I'm not suggesting the last 4 albums were bad but, for me, they had lost the "edge" I really loved in her music.
Suddenly.....wallop....here is White Chalk. I first heard "When Under Ether" and "The Piano" on the radio without knowing who it was and fell in love with them almost immediately. Totally different and very much "out-there", this is quite a departure and all the better for it.
My joy is rekindled.
This album is exceptional.
I'm so very pleased :)
on 13 February 2010
With "White Chalk" PJ Harvey radically changes her style, turning to a quieter, more intimate atmosphere yet the power, the anguish and the intensity are still there with her talent. Songs like Grow Grow Grow and White Chalk itself are amongst her best ever.
on 24 April 2010
Upon listening to this album in 2007, when it first came out, I immediately realized that there was something special about it, and thought it would continue to speak to me year in and year out. Some time has elapsed, and I can say that my prediction has held true thus far. White Chalk is a jewel, one of those rare works of art that transcend genre and give voice to emotion with impeccable intellectual honesty.
PJ Harvey delivers a collection of eleven perfect tracks, which combine to form a moving, if mysterious, story of abandonment and sorrow, of gloom and doom. Whereas the overall narrative may be elusive -- it's hard to say whether the premise is the loss of a child and subsequent departure of a companion, the demise of one parent and folly of the other as witnessed by a young girl powerless to keep disaster at bay, betrayal and heartbreak, or none/all of the above -- one track passes the torch to the next, creating a seamless succession of scenes. These are without doubt pages ripped out of the same book, where cohesion and absolute integrity are used to good effect.
With commendable lyricism, mastery of the language worthy of the best poets, brevity both beautiful and intense, PJ Harvey depicts a journey not from here to there, but from one state of despair to another. Half ghost town in the West, half heath in Dorset, this is a lonely place, yet one many adults will inhabit sooner or later. The mood is dark, but also uniquely epic (not dissimilar to some passages of Britten's The Turn of the Screw, although the comparison may seem far-fetched to some). The instrumentation is not suggestive of any grandeur (or of any aspiration to grandeur, for that matter), but most certainly conveys a sense of solemnity and of ladylike dignity in the face of disaster that I would indeed term grand.
This work is not confrontational: even in the rare instances in which bleak composure is supplanted by loud despair, it is so obvious that no one (not even the moon) is there to listen to the heroine, that her cry never ceases to be inward. This album is not about the moment in which tragedy occurs, or is first discovered, either. It's about the aftermath of tragedy -- about its effects on this human soul.
In a manner of speaking, the heroine doesn't shout, but rather stares blankly: that's what makes her so scary, and so convincing. Pain takes on the guise of annihilation. It gnaws at her soul, draining it of any joy or willpower. It is cloaked in whispers and good manners, but ever present in the background. And internalized, silenced and bottled up, it seems somehow more permanent -- invincible even. While she soldiers on to a march-like rhythm on a few tracks, it would sometimes seem that her ultimate resolve is not to resolve this situation at all, but to let it swallow her whole. Any effort to the contrary is useless, and all former solace insignificant. Darkness is dear, invoked as the only possible remedy.
To be sure, there is a victim in this story, who comes to her death not by bludgeoning or by other unladylike blood-spilling. The weapon here is not a dagger, but a rope.
on 6 March 2010
"I'm alone amongst my friends in that i really like PJ Harvey, and no-one else i know really does.. I thought Dry was great, Bring You My Love and Stories of the City were both excellent, and Uh Huh Her i'm still not sure about, but there are moments i really love. The others i havent heard. So i came to this unsure of what i was really letting myself in for, realising that she is capable of both amazing and not-so-great work.
"And at first, i really wasn't impressed, but after that first disappointing listen, i for some reason listened again, and again, and again... and i think it's possibly her best album. The sound is quieter and more minimal i suppose when placed amongst her other work, and it's not such an easy listen as say To Bring You My Love. But there is so much depth to the lyrics and sound, it's really one that grows on you. And i'd strongly recommend it, but not to my friends cause they're all stick in the muds...:)"
I wrote the above on 6th March, and have listened to it on and off over the last 3 months, and have now pushed it up from 4 to 5 stars because i really think it is a great album, one that will last like to bring you my love will, though i actually prefer this. I think it seemed a little impenetrable at first, hence my hesitations, but after listening to it a few times you really see how intimate the songs actually are. Like being in a relationship i suppose, most people from the outside won't have a clue about all the fuss you're making over this other person, but when you're there the reasons are clear.. if a little hard to describe.
on 4 January 2009
As other reviewers have said, this is a melancholy affair from start to finish (although that description cetainly doesn't do it justice). It might take a few listens for you to get truly drawn into it but my experience was that it's heart wrenchingly delicate and wonderfully raw at the same time.
If you want to get an idea of what it sounds like before you buy, I'd say a cross between Philip Glass, the melancholic side of Grandaddy, the Pretenders, Lou Barlow, Ava Adore era Smashing Pumpkins and PJ Harvey of course. Actually now I've written that, the comparison seem silly - the album is so much more than that - but I'll leave it there in case it's helpful to anyone.
Most of the reviews of this album - both amateur and pro - have tended to focus on the effect rather than the content of these songs. It's true that the shift to piano and away from guitar is a departure, and her switch to a more ethereal vocal style may come as a surprise.
Yet ethereal is precisely what this album is. "When Under Ether" seems to recall an abortion endured semi-conscious while a child's life slips away into nothingness; in other songs she yearns for the companionship of the dead or or begs something unseen for forgiveness. She has "blood on her hands": the white chalk of her native Dorset hills sticks to her shoes. She laments her loss and pain like a banshee or a tragic Hardy heroine.
The haunting subject matter may be oblique to some, though the strange and swirling melodies and almost choral purity of her voice may bewitch those who have not encountered Harvey's music before. As an exploration of a particular kind of female agony, this set of songs is almost without parallel.
on 29 September 2007
I have read a couple of reviews slating PJ for not doing exactly the same things as she has done before. They appear to have missed the point! This is exactly what makes her a true musician. This album explores a whole new side and it's excellent. If you want a band that just regurgitates, listen to the Pussycat Dolls *ughhh* can't believe I mentioned the unmentionable!
PJ's music is an holistic experience. If you don't like the music, listen to the lyrics but better still take the songs as a whole and you get the full picture.
In a nutshell - enjoy. I did!
on 21 September 2007
Reactions to the surprise of PJ Harvey's eighth album seemed to fall into two camps: those who miss her 'classic' angry guitar-based sound and don't think that White Chalk represents the essence of what a P J Harvey album "should" be; and those who fell under its bleak, ethereal spell.
This time Harvey is seated at the piano and sings in fleeting songs (the whole album lasts less than 34 minutes) of loss, childhood, death, family and abortion, evoking a dusty atmosphere: "The devil wanders into my soul," she sings on the opener, and "Dear darkness, dear darkness, won't you cover, cover me - again?" on the next track. Broken Harp opens with a plea: "Please don't reproach me for how empty my life has become" while the title track sees her strolling in a desolate landscape, lonely and resigned: "Dorset's cliffs lead to the sea / Where I walked our unborn child in me". Families fall apart ("Daddy's in the corner, rattling his keys. Mummy's in the doorway trying to leave"); her dead grandmother is longingly apostrophed; and her mother is invoked to "teach me to grow".
Throughout Harvey sings in a higher register than usual, wailing and impaling herself in the highest reaches of her voice - childlike, fragile and introspective (an acquired taste it seems: some have hated her for this vocal change). The atmosphere feels naked and chilly, as if recorded in a dusty room lined with cobwebs and antique furniture, and recalls the ominous air of gothic novels like Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847). Even the cover, on which Polly looks like a Victorian governess in her puffed white dress and restrained pose, seems eerily reminiscent of a painting of another gothic hero: Edvard Munch's Puberty (1895).
Although it clearly represents a radical change of direction for Harvey, it is not an album without apparent influences, bearing traces of Marissa Nadler's Songs III: Bird on the Water, Nick Cave's dark tales, Björk's Vespertine and the breathy, lethargic vocals of Hope Sandoval. But Harvey nevertheless weaves her own cloth out of the thread, creating something sombre and dirge-like in the process. In a recent interview she explained that "The white chalk of the West Country hills was not consciously my inspiration at all for this record. I just like the sound of the words 'white chalk'. It can be millions of years old but erased in a second, and somehow has a timeless quality. The timelessness became more the source of inspiration." (4.5 stars)
Standouts: The Mountain, The Devil, Dear Darkness, The Piano