Thursday, January 17, 2008

Since You Betrayed Me So...

PJ Harvey – White Chalk

It's an indication of how far I've stuck my head down into the dank, dark oubliette of the metal world that my first reaction to this album was 'OK, but... meh...'. It took the right context for it's brilliance to be revealed, and this happened to be while trying to sleep in Singapore airport and needing something quiet enough to relax me to sleep but substantial enough to drown out the soul killing awfulness of the muzak being played over the speakers. At that moment, trying to find a way to get comfortable on the horrible plastic chairs, I was unexpectedly stunned by its beauty.

PJ Harvey has always made a point on not repeating herself so it's par for the course that White Chalk sounds like nothing else she's ever done. Throughout the album Harvey sings in a high, fragile sounding voice and is accompanied by a similarly fragile sounding piano. Reinforced by the lyrics and concept art, the songs have a Victorian gothic air about them, as Harvey's stories of loss, longing and regret portray romantic characters from a bygone era.

Despite the artifice of the White Chalk's concept the music is very moving, and there's some killer songwriting to be found. While most of the album is low key and contemplative, space is found for a few climactic outbursts, which don't come as an eruption of heaviness but rather when Harvey's voice builds from the disassociated, regretful sighing that she affects for most of the album to a howling, tormented shriek. Given an environment when you can pay it the attention it deserves, White Chalk is beautiful, in a strange, moody kind of way, and more intense and affecting than you'd expect from something that comes from so far out of left field.

Here's 'The Mountain':

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