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Not a dagger, but a rope
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.