PJ Harvey: White Chalk

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PJ Harvey: White Chalk

To Bring You My Aura

Ghost-dancing through subliminal time

You can imagine the scene at record-label headquarters as the new PJ Harvey album, White Chalk, is discussed by the execs.

“What we’ve got here is a grower!” “You mean, no hits?” “Exactly.” “Well, she’s an alternative artist. She’s not expected to have hits in the conventional sense. Just something that sticks out and says ‘I’m different.’”

“It’s a quiet one. Nothing sticks out. You have to listen closely. But not to worry. We’ll look back decades from now and fans will be rediscovering it. Critics will re-evaluate it. It will be seen as a triumph!”

“By then we’ll be out of jobs.”

“Well, that’s inevitable. I had my secretary put my résumé up on that Internet thing just the other day.”

The next sound is that of a record executive plunging to his death.

PJ Harvey isn’t out to save the record industry. She isn’t out to build her own career in the conventional sense either. Just as Neil Young explained how, when he found himself in the middle of the road with his Top 40 hit "Heart of Gold," he headed straight for the ditch, Ms. Harvey has made alternate travel plans. Harvey has never had a mainstream breakthrough, yet she has long been held in high critical regard.

Put in context, White Chalk serves her purposes, much as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska served his. On initial listen, the album is not a step forward, nor is it a step back, but rather a lateral move intended to leave breathing room for her next attack. It feels like a side-project, a minor collection of inter-related tunes that begin and ends at the piano. The same way much great literature takes place in one day of a character’s life, White Chalk happens in one dark, dreary night in PJ Harvey’s life. In a sense, White Chalk will be better defined by what eventually comes, as the album is less a destination than part of Harvey’s journey.

White Chalk is not a difficult record. It doesn’t present anything you wouldn’t expect. But whereas, say, Rid of Me challenged you with its abrasive core, or To Bring You My Love delivered a subsonic punch wrapped in soothing layers of production, and Uh Huh Her, her last album, returned her muse to an irreverent garage-band clang, White Chalk aims at taking you underwater, where the body meditates on placid, piano-based melodies that operate in their own peculiar space and time. Flood and John Parish share production credits and Eric Drew Feldman and the Dirty Three’s Jim White are among her players. The little group keeps everything within Harvey’s bubble.

She has, for the moment, put her aggressions to rest. The guitars are packed and the drums muted. When the sticks ?nally poke through on track nine, “The Piano,” it practically sounds like a mistake. She will not scream for her lover. She will not writhe in biblical calling. Her blues are set aside for a try at something beyond obvious song form. White Chalk could be a Nico album, or a companion piece to Francoise Hardy’s La Question. Or maybe Harvey’s been digging all the recent Judee Sill reissues. Chalk could have come out on the 4AD label 20 years ago. Yes, you could even use the word “ethereal,” and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. But something's happening here beyond mere weightless pleasantries, though with titles such as “The Piano,” “Silence,” “Broken Harp” and “When Under Ether,” she is putting more time into cultivating an environment than crafting a narrative.

But then this is PJ Harvey, and she’s always been as much about context as content. She’d just be another dime-a-dozen folk singer if she didn’t imagine herself as a freaky chick in funny clothes and ?ll her songs with black holes that leave everything strewn and confused. She works with imagery in song and plays with her image in person. She’s as much a pop star as a songwriter, and the combination helps her marginal work slip past and makes her greatest work seem epic.

That said, there are no epics here. This is the album meant for the shoebox in her closet. You dust it off years from now and decide where you stand. There are 11 tracks totaling 34 minutes, with only “To Talk to You” reaching the four-minute mark. In this time of 70-minute albums that linger beyond the patience point, it’s a refreshingly brief collection that never wears out its welcome.

Opening cut “The Devil” sets the tone. The piano bounces its chords in excited repetition, and Harvey sings indecipherably at the top of her register, swooping down for effect. “Dear Darkness” follows. The piano slows, and the sparse notes reverberate as if emitting from the back of a large church while Harvey leads a choir of voices to skate over the notes with a wintry grace. The record continues this way. It could very easily be adapted as a movie soundtrack to one of Hal Hartley’s loose, imagistic works. Harvey appeared in Hartley’s 1998 film The Book of Life, and her ability to channel and collaborate with her obvious artistic brethren—from Hartley to Nick Cave—has given her work additional heft and context over the years. As a perpetual outsider and non-joiner, she’s found her touchstones for energy and strength.

The songs on White Chalk segue from one to the next, raising their blood pressure ever so slightly midway through and eventually slowing for the album’s ?nale, “The Mountain,” which resembles its opener. This time, the piano doesn’t bounce but marks time as the chords fall into place. Harvey transmits from the top of her range, more a distant radio signal than a singer in a room. Then, as vaguely as she came, she disappears from view, never really sure how she got here in the ?rst place, leaving us to wonder if she was ever really there at all.