Sound: PJ Harvey pulls an amazingly gutsy move with her latest musical venture, White Chalk. Plenty of veteran artists would feel the need top themselves by pulling out the stops, whether that means calling on a 40-piece orchestra or guest musicians to keep things interesting. But Harvey is the quintessential minimalist on White Chalk, playing an instrument she learned only recently and repeating certain lines several times over. But such a move is not unheard of for an experimental artist like Harvey, and it's hard to not be intrigued by the ethereal world she has created in White Chalk.
You're entering into a whole different dimension during the 11-track CD, and at times it's almost an uncomfortable ride because the music is so unique. Gone is the familiar guitar-oriented, rock sound of Harvey's past releases. In its place are a series of melancholy tracks that just ooze sadness, and not just the usual unrequited love kind of sadness. This is the kind of sadness you might sense if you walked into a haunted old Victorian house. The piano -- which Harvey apparently only learned to play recently -- is the dominant instrument on most of the tracks, but that doesn't mean you're in store for elaborate opuses. Harvey keeps the piano playing simple, and the result is somewhat unsettling. Almost every song has a jarring piano line that repeats and repeats and repeats, which depending on your taste, can create an extremely eerie mood or a monotonous nightmare.
The Devil is the opener of White Chalk, and it's a fitting one at that. The consistent piano line and minimal bass are highlighted by Harvey's soft, high-pitched vocals (which almost sound ghost-like), and the song barely reaches a crescendo. It just seems to sit in a state of sadness, but that's probably the effect that Harvey was trying to get across. Many of the songs on the CD follow this same formula, and the banshee-like vocals of Harvey is an ever-present aspect.
The title track White Chalk is a rarity in that Harvey actually pulls out the guitar for this one. Of course, it's acoustic and still keeps the dark vibe of the CD, but it adds a nice contrast to the other tracks. You even get a little bit of banjo and harmonica about halfway through the song, making it the richest sounding song of the record. When you compare the track to Broken Harp, which seriously sounds like Harvey is plucking a broken harp or out-of-tune acoustic guitar, it's a layered extravaganza. But White Chalk still feels bare itself, and that quiet sound combined with echo effect on the vocals creates an unbelievable creepy feel. // 8
Lyrics: As is evident by the music accompanying them, the lyrics on White Chalk don't delve into light subject matters. Harvey goes from introspection to heartache and back again, and you feel every word she sings. She's able to inject the right amount of sadness when she sings, Oh God, I miss you, but also can project the sterility and indifference when she whispers, When under ether, the mind comes alive. The lyrics absolutely connect with the music on White Chalk, which creates quite a dark trip. // 9
Overall Impression: Harvey's rock roots have been abandoned altogether on her latest release, and it's a shocking switch. There is very little finesse in Harvey's piano skills, but that's the point. It's rough. It's imperfect. It's meant to leave an unsettling impression. There is a fine line between setting an effective mood and getting downright repetitive, and the verdict is still out on whether Harvey crosses that boundary one too many times on the record.
Harvey's ability to push her usual limits has definitely earned respect from fans since her releases in the early '90s. The singer/songwriter's loyal listeners should not be fazed by Harvey's decision to create a haunting, dreamlike 8th album. While it never reaches the masterpiece zone, Harvey is still one gutsy lady for shunning the moneymaking side of the industry. For all of it's peculiarities, White Chalk is a labor of love that deserves attention. // 8