The critical scene in the 1939 cinematic masterpiece The Wizard of Oz is when Toto (the dog, not the AOR supremos) reveals that all the awe-inspiring stuff keeping the good people of Oz to heel is being controlled by a little old man behind a curtain. That begs the question, does something become less impressive if we know the rather prosaic way it’s been produced? Record companies don’t seem to think so, as there’s a seemingly endless parade of demo/alternate/unfinished material constantly coming at consumers from all angles. The latest album to join this rapidly expanding catalogue is White Chalk Demos, which contains the rough versions of all the songs on her 2007 album, White Chalk.
When you buy a PJ Harvey record, you never quite know what to expect. That can be a good thing. Will you get the strident alt-rock of “50ft Queenie”, the polished pop of “Good Fortune”, or in the case of Let England Shake, a collection of songs inspired by her learning to play the autoharp? Generally, whatever palette she uses, you’re going to get a good result. However, in its initially released format, White Chalk required a bit of work to listen to. At the time of the recording, Harvey was in the process of learning to play the piano, and the songs were based on her rudimentary skills on the instrument. When the material was finally augmented by her usual cohort of Flood, John Parish, and Eric Drew Feldman, something lovely emerged. Without these enhancements, as we hear them on White Chalk Demos, only the barest of bones are left to carry the tunes.
Rawness is a quality that musicians and critics often laud. “It’s real” is the cry. It may be real, but often, it’s not great. If you can get all the way through the aptly named “Broken Harp” without wincing at what appears to be an out-of-tune parlor guitar, you are to be congratulated. As an aide-memoire or a template for the finished version, the recording would be adequate, but as something that you expect people to pay money for, it seems to be a bit of a stretch. And that’s the story of this release – preliminary versions of songs just about played well enough to discern chord structures and moods. Are they radically different from the finished versions? Not really. They are just less accomplished.
On songs like “The Devil”, Harvey sounds like a small child writing her first song, her high, keening voice accompanied by entry-level piano playing. It’s often a tough listen. Nothing on here sounds any better or, crucially, more interesting than it does on White Chalk. It just sounds primitive, in a bad way. It’s doubtful that anyone will buy this record, thinking that it’s a “regular” album (unless they’re really in a hurry), so purchasers will, for the most part, know what to expect. Sadly, if I’d heard this before the 2007 album, I’d be in no rush to listen to it. We get no unexpected insight into her creative process. Very little here is different from the regular record, except the deft touches added in the studio by Harvey and her cohort are sadly absent, leaving the listener straining to add the details themselves.
A handful of songs survive the harsh spotlight. “Dear Darkness” sounds tense and fragile, and Harvey’s backing vocal is a welcome addition. “When Under Ether” has what might be a penny whistle adding a little melodic curlicue to what would be a great tune no whatever how or what it was played on.
So, what do we learn from White Chalk Demos? We learn that sometimes the early versions of songs only hint at what they’ll become. We realize that Harvey is getting better at playing the piano but still has a long way to go. But most importantly, we’ve learned that if we’re in the presence of something amazing and we spot a suspicious-looking, grey-haired old man, to leave him alone. He’s busy.