Piano is a striking way to open a PJ Harvey album, especially since it’s followed not by guitar, but by some hand percussion and light background singing that turns echoey — resembling the spookiest of Ennio Morricone’s 1970s film scores. Even more startling is when Harvey’s lead vocals come in, almost falsetto-high. She begins, “As soon as I’m left alone / the devil wanders into my soul.” That reference to satanic possession is right in line with the otherworldly musical impression that the entire album makes. Harvey herself is on the cover, dressed in white, looking pale as a ghost — and White Chalk sounds like a ghost story, start to finish.
Musically it stands outside of time and place, or attempts to — the only thing marking this as the present day is the modern, CD-era production and our familiarity, seven or so albums in, with Harvey and her songwriting style. These are PJ Harvey songs, at their core, yet the album as a whole stands in its own strange place. There is no electric guitar on the album. Primitively played piano is the main instrument; its companions include a harpsichord or similar instrument, a harp (on the song “Broken Harp”), brushed drums, a harmonica (I think), and what seems like a metronome. My uncertainty about exactly which instruments are played is in opposition to how stark the album is, yet also a testament to the thorough strangeness of it.
The feeling that, in theory, this might be the sound of someone in a far-off place, a long time ago, is reinforced with immediacy in the stunning opening to “Broken Harp”, where she briefly sings a capella. Even the lyrics are often worded in a vernacular that could be of an era past; in the opening song “The Devil”, for example, she sings, “all of my being is now in pining.” Who talks like that, now? Did people talk like that in the past? If so, when and where? The lyrics and music continually make us feel like we’re floating between eras.
Harvey’s vocals are whispered, gently wailed or nearly spoken — rarely sung in the style of her previous albums. The first time she screams is in the final track, “The Mountain”, and it’s an alarming, but oddly comforting, surprise when it happens. That’s partly because of the tension that runs through the whole album; that scream seems like a climactic release of a pain that’s been building for all 30 minutes that preceded it.
The force of that scream comes from the intensity of White Chalk’s atmosphere, despite it being the quietest PJ Harvey album. (More than her own albums, its atmosphere reminds me of two of my favorite 2006 albums — Lisa Germano’s In the Maybe World and the Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely — though it’s fiercer than either.) The lyrics tell tales — some seemingly related to each other — of deep sadness and hurt. And they do so with visceral language. “The words tighten around my throat / And the throat of the one I love,” she sings on “Dear Darkness”. “The Piano” opens with this unsettling image: “Hit her with a hammer / Teeth smashed in / Red tongue’s twitching / Look inside her skeleton.” Another lyric in that song, “Oh God I miss you”, expresses a feeling underlying several songs, the longing for someone who has departed. Yet the bleakness of the song makes the other meaning of that line, suggesting the absence of God, work equally well.
Every song’s narrator is tormented, almost always by the past and its lingering presence or absence. There’s always someone who has left, for better or worse. Along with a song titled “Before Departure” and references to silence, darkness, and isolation, Harvey sings to departed lovers, dead family members, unborn children. “When Under Ether” portrays the moment of abortion as happy and dream-like, while the two songs that follow it suggest guilt about the same. In “Broken Harp” she sings, “Oh something metal / Tearing my stomach out / If you think ill of me / Can you can you forgive me too?”
As with Harvey’s music in general, desire, pain, heartbreak and bodies themselves are wrapped up together as a a physical mass of images and stories. There’s a raw intimacy to White Chalk akin to the demeanor of Rid of Me or Is This Desire? (or, in a more forced way, Uh Huh Her). At the same time, this is a supremely ghostly album, sketched in air in ways that those earlier albums were not. The musical setting — Harvey and friends’ purposeful manner of eschewing ‘rock and roll’ or even electric instruments — is disarming but also impressive. White Chalk is as penetrating as the loudest, fiercest moments on previous albums, but less from moments of aggression than from a chilling atmosphere of restrained frenzy. It’s rare that music this supernatural is also this visceral; it reminds me of a haunting line in “The Piano”: “ghostly fingers moving my limbs.” White Chalk is the sound of ghostly fingers cutting deep and leaving scars.