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PJ Harvey: White Chalk

PJ Harvey: White Chalk

Label:White Chalk
Release Date:2007

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 10/10/2007

An album of chilling piano ballads? Why not? English songstress Polly Jean Harvey has sheathed graphic subject matter in every other form: a rock record, a noisy rock record, a bluesy record, a demos record, even an electronic/trip-hop record. Harvey's previous release, 2004's Uh Huh Her, felt like a retrospective, a recontextualized cannibalism of darkly intense flavors from her lauded 1992 debut, Dry, through 2000's overly conventional Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. With White Chalk she draws a thick outline around the guitar's desiccated corpse, turning her tormented attentions to the ivories.

An apparent plot thread somberly snakes through this half-hour suite: We're bearing witness to the before, during, and after of a woman's circumstantially ambiguous loss of her unborn child. "The Devil" comes on deceptively jaunty, its Motown-esque jingle-jangle beguiling even as an audience with Mephisto looms. Then an invitation is extended to "Dear Darkness" to consume the narrator, as light, lacy pianos and dulcimer plucks interlock into a vise from which Harvey begs, "Cover me from the sun/ Do the words tighten?/ The words are tightening around my throat." The title track's self-indictments seem to emerge from a long, anesthetized tunnel dripping with endorphin reverb: "Scratch my palms/ There's blood on my hands." The horrors linger like taunting ghosts on anxious "Silence" and the anguished "The Piano."

Harvey's Chalk vocalizing is almost clinically restrained--as if her protagonist were grasping to maintain control emotionally amid unimaginably painful circumstances. As "The Mountain" ripples to its fever-dream close, though, she hits an impossibly high pitch and lets loose a string of tortured squeals. Harrowing would be an understatement; Harvey's ravishing artistry has never been more quietly devastating.

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