The last time I saw PJ Harvey perform live she had just released an album half-dedicated to a city whose tallest buildings still stood in the financial district. As our politicians have told us repeatedly over the last six years, “everything has changed,” and since then Harvey has put out two understated records, 2004’s lo-fi Uh Huh Her (by most accounts the “low point” of a career with many peaks and few valleys) and this fall’s stark, piano-driven White Chalk, an album that, upon first listen, is as pneumatic as chalk dust and makes its predecessor sound a lot meatier than some may remember. The stripped-to-the-bone aesthetic of these two releases makes one yearn for the fleshier quality of Harvey’s previous efforts. But while White Chalk may be overly conceptual, its sonically specific approach represents an evolution nonetheless.
The promotional tour for White Chalk is as minimalist as the music itself, consisting of only two exclusive dates on each coast, and Slant was fortunate enough to snag a couple of seats to Harvey’s sold-out New York gig at the Beacon. The venue is famous for its near-perfect acoustics, but Harvey and her sound engineers apparently thought they should amp up the levels to compensate for the fact that it was a solo performance (instead of her usual band, she was accompanied by drum loops, pedal effects, and during one or two songs, a metronome). The hypnotic, drone-like effect during “Down by the Water” was painfully piercing, but it was the night’s only notable blemish.
Harvey emerged on stage wearing the white Elizabethan-inspired dress pictured on the cover of White Chalk, only it’s now covered with her song lyrics. She’s getting old, she told us. But there was no indication of said aging—in her memory, her voice (she reached maniacal depths and heights on the extraordinary “My Beautiful Leah”), or the way she thrashed at her guitar during “oldies” like the opener “To Bring You My Love” and the still frightening “Rid of Me.” Harvey was lit like a Halloween lawn display, with various instruments, amps, and knick-knacks surrounding her, a string of orange lights hanging from her piano, an amber-colored spotlight illuminating her pale skin and dress, and of course, songs about skeletons, mummies, and devils. Harvey was all smiles throughout the night, and gratitude, like the beer, flowed freely. “Thank you so much,” the singer said quietly and genuinely in her always-surprising English accent. “No, thank you!” more than one person shouted to comic effect.
In the context of Harvey’s older material, the new songs didn’t seem monotonous or academic at all. Quite the opposite, in fact: They’re meditative and precise, like something from an antique music box, but also primal and instinctive. It’s no surprise that Harvey can go from a whisper to a roar (often in the same song), but never so completely, and never with music that makes it seem like two wholly different artists have taken the stage, alternating flawlessly—with the help of a stage manager, of course—and with fierce purpose. To wit, Harvey has successfully managed to generate considerable anticipation for each new release by pacing herself (a new album no less than every three years) and evolving every single time. Evolving doesn’t simply mean you strip things away or add new sounds until it seems like everything has changed, but as she sings on one new song, you have to “grow, grow, grow.”