Don’t hold your breath — she doesn’t pick up her electric guitar on this one either. White Chalk, PJ Harvey’s eighth full-length and first in three years, isn’t loud or brash; it isn’t Rid of Me” (1993) or even Is This Desire? (1998). But this album will still take away the breath you aren’t holding: It’s at once bleak, aching, and insidiously beautiful.
One of Harvey’s strengths is that she can release an album that sounds nothing like any she’s put out before it but still make it sound exactly like a PJ Harvey record should. Even behind the piano, her music retains the depth and spark she is known for, and her voice floats off to new heights. White Chalk is meant for headphones, with intricate layers and buried surprises.
On “Dear Darkness” John Parish’s voice offers a lovely bass counterpoint to Harvey’s voice (and perhaps hints at what we can expect on their forthcoming 2008 collaboration). Parish’s voice is like butter trying to melt on Harvey’s ice cubes. The title track is the album’s centerpiece, Harvey’s vocals ranging from soft-spoken to husky and cold. This may well be the sound and implication Cat Power was going for and almost captured on You Are Free. Harvey sings about white chalk sticking to her hands and feet, and the song is punctuated by ethereal wailing, pinned down with harmonica, guitar, piano and plucking — the blood on her hands is still ruby red and wet.
“The Piano” is the closest thing to an upbeat pop song on this album, if only because the tempo picks up the pace a bit and the key is major for a change. It’s almost jaunty, but it isn’t a total distraction from the murky waters she treads on the rest of the album; the heartbreak is still apparent in the lyrics, “Oh, god I miss you,” and “nobody’s listening.”
“To Talk to You” sounds like Harvey’s taken the Radiohead blueprint and made her own track that would sit comfortably on Hail to the Thief. Maybe this is a lasting impression from her work with Thom Yorke on “This Mess We’re In” from 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Its off-kilter piano and pale white noise wander in that general direction.
White Noise may be a somewhat quieter record for Harvey, but it’s very much distinctively her. She still has one of the most jarring and versatile voices in music, and it’s just as stunning toned down. White Chalk is like a frayed blanket from your childhood, threadbare in places, but still trying to keep you warm. Those drafts that do get in are welcome in their coldness, and it makes you feel alive — and possibly glad that you aren’t the one who’s inspiring all the gorgeous chill in her songs.