Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/24/09.
After success of 2000's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and 2004's raw, sparser Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey was still riding high on a wave of critical acclaim and some moderate commercial success. While still enjoying a loyal fanbase, Harvey took a low profile for the next few years which included the release of a compilation record called The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 as a tribute to the late John Peel. Harvey was also contributing to side projects including the Desert Sessions with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, contribute vocals to a Mark Lanegan album, and wrote/produce/perform some songs for an album by Marianne Faithfull. At the same time, Harvey was also learning to play piano which would help shape new material she was working for the dark, haunting 2007 album White Chalk.
Written by PJ Harvey with production by Harvey, Flood, and John Parish, White Chalk is an album that recalls the experimentation of Harvey's mid-90s work but in a stripped-down performance. Using mostly piano, an instrument that Harvey didn't have much experience on, the record is an atmospheric record with lyrics recalling dark themes Harvey had previously explored in the past. With help from friend/collaborator John Parish plus Dirty Three drummer Jim White and past collaborator Eric Drew Feldman. White Chalk is an eerie yet powerful masterpiece from PJ Harvey.
The album opens with The Devil, a song led by a striking, tingling piano with high notes and thumping beats. With PJ Harvey singing in a smooth, falsetto vocal, the song is filled with chilling lyrics awaiting for the arrival of an evil figure. With its eerie arrangements and evocative vocal layers, it's a song that sets the tone for the entire album. Dear Darkness is a ballad led by somber, melodic piano flourishes with Harvey's high, wailing vocals and a soft, pounding bass drum. With lyrics delving into melancholic themes with acoustic guitar flourishes, it's a rich, ethereal song that continues the album's dreary mood. Grow Grow Grow is led by an ominous, mid-tempo piano melody that plays to Harvey's wailing, raspy vocals with flourishing, tingling keyboards in the background. With lyrics filled with sad, nostalgic themes that plays to the song's soothing, atmospheric tone, it's another track intense arrangements and top-notch production.
The first single When Under Ether is a bouncy though smooth track led by a melodic piano accompaniment with Harvey's high-pitch vocals filled with descriptive, decaying lyrics. With a swooning keyboard in the background, it's an unusual song for a single while it's one of Harvey's most enduring cuts. The album's title track is led by a swirling, hollow acoustic guitar track with Harvey's low, hollow vocals filled with melancholic lyrics. With Harvey's wailing vocals and an accompany banjo led by its evocative production is a track that maintains its mood and stripped-down performance with smooth drums and soft harmonica in its coda. Broken Harp is a song led by Harvey's somber vocals that is accompanied by a smooth, twangy autoharp and other string instruments. Filled with lyrics of redemption and sadness, it's a song that emphasizes Harvey's vocal range as she sings it without any kind of theatrics.
Silence features a bouncy piano track with shimmering percussions that accompany Harvey's smooth, wailing vocals. With its reflective lyrics filled with spiritual themes, it's a song filled with evocative arrangements and amazing production for the song's chorus with layers of vocals. To Talk To You is a chilling piano ballad with Harvey's high-pitch, wailing vocals filled with sad, desperate lyrics. With its moody arrangements filled with soft percussion taps and its melodic-tingling piano notes, it continues to maintain the atmosphere of the entire album. The Piano is a track with soft, washy guitar riffs, soft, sputtering beats, and flourishing keyboards that recalls the experimental work of Radiohead. With Harvey's calm, soothing vocals and sad lyrics, it's the album's most daring and experimental track of the album led by its layered production.
Before Departure is a somber piano ballad filled with lyrics about death. With Harvey's soft vocal and melodic piano accompaniment that includes slow, haunting beats and tingling keyboards that plays into a simple yet chilling arrangement. The album closer The Mountain is a ballad with flourishing piano melodies that play to Harvey's high-pitch, falsetto vocals. Filled with intense arrangements that build the song up along with Harvey's intense vocals which includes dark, evocative lyrics. With flourishing mandolins in the background, the track's momentum builds up which includes Harvey's wailing vocals in the song's coda to give it mesmerizing yet haunting effect to close the album.
Released in the fall of 2007, the album drew rave reviews for its experimentation and haunting sound as the record revealed PJ Harvey's versatility as an artist. The album was a moderate success while her fan base ranked it high among her other albums. Harvey did a brief tour to promote the album before taking another break to work on various projects including another album with friend John Parish.
White Chalk is an ethereal yet mesmerizing masterpiece from PJ Harvey. While it's a more chilling record than some of her other albums, it's a record that shows Harvey's growth as a musician, songwriter, and vocalist. While it's an album that might not be accessible with her other albums, it's a record that is very consistent with its mood and performance thanks in part to the contributions from co-producers Flood and John Parish. In the end, White Chalk is an album that will haunt the listener from the first track to the last one as it's a brilliant record from PJ Harvey.
PJ Harvey Reviews: Dry - Rid of Me - 4-Track Demos - To Bring You My Love - Dance Hall at Louse Point (w/ John Parish) - Is This Desire? - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - Uh Huh Her - The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 - A Woman A Man Walked By (w/ John Parish) - Let England Shake
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