The album is a horse of a very different color for Polly Harvey--where I think many of her albums (Rid Of Me, To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire?, in particular) involve detached performance, even though the music itself is very visceral, White Chalk is a very intimate, emotionally centered, contained album. I mentioned to one of my friends that this album, for me, is like what Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" poems would be if they had been channeled through music, rather than writing. There's the same quiet, seething rage beneath a (relatively) calm veneer--yearning to break free. I remember reading a review of Plath's writing that said it seemed as though there was always this nebulous darkness lingering in the corner of her eye--giving her writing that constantly anxious, haunted tone. That same peripheral darkness seems to haunt PJ Harvey throughout this album--there's blood, death and bones, unborn children, ether, rotting plants and growing seeds and twisted groves taunting her from around every corner.
And what of the music? It's such a departure for her, in my mind. There are moments where you can hear a logical progression from UHH (I can't recall now, but there was a moment that sounded a bit like “Pocket Knife's” darker sister, and the harmonica hearkens back in another moment to “Shame”), but for the most part, this is new terrain for Polly. The songs are mostly minimalist in construction, even though I'm still discovering new sounds and touches in all of the tracks--her piano playing is fairly novice, but it makes perfect sense in this album, with a very demented and childish tone to many of the tracks (Grow Grow Grow, The Piano, To Talk To You, Dear Darkness). One of the things a lot of reviewers will touch on is the high register the majority of the album is sung in (think Nina in Ecstasy), but the nearly off-key voice never irritates (and I hate Nina in Ecstasy, just FYI) or distracts. In the same way the sometimes amateurish piano arrangements feed on the childlike, desperate mood, the high voice has its rightful place. And there are still a few wails and moans (Grow Grow Grow, The Mountain, end of Silence, Broken Harp and White Chalk are in a more normal register). But in the end it's the little touches in the arrangements that really give these songs life—as I wasn’t particularly impressed with the stripped-down, solo piano versions she’s been playing live. And now for some track-by-track review stuffs.
The Devil: A very powerful opening track. The ghostly layered vocals set to some jaunty piano and driving drums catch the attention without detracting from the overall mood of the song and album. Old-school PJ is revived in the plea for some mysterious figure to “come! come!” It sets the tone—we know from the outset that there’s some fucked up themes and that this is a completely new and exciting direction for her music.
Dear Darkness: This one hasn’t completely grabbed me yet, I suppose because it’s not a very immediate track. I’d venture to say it’s probably the most vulnerable on the album and certainly one of the most subdued—again, there’s the yearning and the pleas to another dark enigma (we see a lot of these in the album—The Devil, Darkness incarnate, a dead grandmother, and faceless daunting parents). A quiet track that hasn’t quite separated itself from the rest yet, but definitely a keeper nonetheless.
Grow Grow Grow: More of the high voice here, but this track also features my favorite vocal performance--on the "grow" repetition, where her voice loses that vulnerability for a moment to cave into desperation and yearning. The chord progressions-particularly for the "grow" bit-are some of the strongest and most memorable on the album. Someone said that it’s like falling into a Tim Burton film—I don’t know if I agree, but it’s certainly got a very twisted cabaret/carnivale feel to it. This is my personal favorite on the entire album, though it seems as though there's not much love going around for it right now. Give it another shot.
When Under Ether: Most of us are familiar by now with this one, and it is interesting to hear it in the context of the album. While I like the song, I think it still sticks out a bit as a sore thumb or weak link for me. It’s not a bad song, but I don’t think it’s as dynamic as any of the others. I might just be burned out on it right now. I will say that it’s one of the most interesting tracks from a lyrical perspective—what is the narrator under ether for? Many have argued that it’s an abortion (and that would be interesting and fitting, with the unborn children haunting several tracks), but I love that it’s left just open enough to not be able to pinpoint.
White Chalk: An incredibly strong track—it’s got the elements of the countryside that she said inspired her to create this album, and also features some of the best lyrics on the album. The jam-out session towards the end with the harmonica and banjo is one of the most inspiring moments on the album. Blood is on her hands in this track—which would be pretty provocative following the possible abortion of WUE (and the “growing” of Grow Grow Grow—could it even be the aborted child?).
Broken Harp: Now if we’re following the thematic progression, this is the asking for forgiveness. Begins a cappella, and I’m not entirely sold on this song yet. If nothing else, it’s an arrangement I never would have expected to hear from PJ Harvey. I think it’s a grower—her vocals on the track are again very different, but something about them definitely grabs your interest.
Silence: The only song on the album I kind of actively dislike right now. I think the “silence” repetition at the end goes on too long, and it’s also one of the only tracks that takes me out of the dour, suicidal mood that the album maintains throughout.
To Talk To You: This and Grow Grow Grow are my two favorites on the album—I feel that there’s a definite link between them, but it may be just my imagination. An image I keep getting when I think of the two tracks as a pair is that of the narrator planting the seed (Grow Grow Grow) in the earth where the dead grandmother is buried (TTTY)—trying to connect again to the lost family member. These two have the strongest Plathian images for me (think in “Daddy” when Plath envisions returning to her father through suicide—and the childlike mood of GGG and the yearning to be under the earth with her grandmother in TTTY)—so that may be why I connect them. The vocals are vaguely similar, and I’d say these are the two oddest tracks on the album…which might also make them the most hated of the album, but I have nothing but love for either of them. The piano riff is also one of the most memorable on the album—I love that the chords never really resolve themselves. You think for a moment during the “could you hear me?” bit that the music might resolve peacefully, but it only climbs ever more dangerously towards desperation. Probably one of the scariest tracks she’s ever put to record.
The Piano: The driving opening to this song seems to conceal the much darker direction it turns in, especially as it runs toward the end. The bit about daddy rattling keys and mummy trying to leave is another really provocative moment—it gives this incredibly dark portrait of a crazed family scene. It’s simply a moment in time captured, but that’s probably one of the strongest progressions for Polly on the album—she’s found an unbelievable way to capture specific images that leave haunting, lasting impressions.
Before Departure: This could almost be an unsalvageable and gratingly boring song, but somehow, once you hit the chorus, the buildup makes perfect sense. I was almost inclined to skip it during the opening, but it’s definitely worth a listen fully through—because once past the first verse, things get a lot more interesting. The male vocals on this one (and the first two tracks) add so much to the overall sound, and the chorus itself is another breathtaking moment on the album. Again—it seems that the music will resolve, but the chorus grounds (haha) the song again in that ethereal, mournful mood. While this one didn’t grab me on the first few listens, it’s definitely moving up the rankings as I listen more and more to the album.
The Mountain: Thank GOD the wails from the live version made it into the final cut. I was really worried that they might get lost in production, but I actually think they’re better placed in the album arrangement—there’s a better buildup to the freakout in terms of the arrangement of the song up until that point. And because they’re a bit lower in the mix, it’s as if death herself is wailing in the distance—a banshee coming to claim whoever will listen to her shrieks. It’s such a fucking powerful ending note to the album, too—there’s nothing at all upbeat or hopeful in closing with the siren’s screams, and I think that’s probably the most fitting thing PJ could have done to bring this masterwork to its inevitable end.
On the whole, I can’t praise this album enough. I’ve spent pretty much every waking moment since I heard it thirty-six or so hours ago wanting to listen to it again—it’s going to end up played to death in the coming months (especially as the weather becomes more and more bleak). This is such an autumnal/wintery album—it’s for those incredibly depressing, cold gray late-late night/very early morning hours. While it’s not the kind of album I ever expected to hear from her, it somehow fits so perfectly into her body of work. This is almost assuredly the best album I’ve found this year, and a worthy effort on her part. Check it out as soon as possible, and buy the album once it comes out! Prepare to find yourself face-to-face with the same demons that lurk in every crevice of this absolutely awe-inspiring record.
Download: Grow Grow Grow, To Talk To You, The Piano, The Devil
Grow Grow Grow
To Talk To You