Even when measured against her own otherwise peerless standards, PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album, White Chalk, is a triumph of both micro and macro level structure, tremendously heady in its content and convention- and expectation-defying in its form. Harvey is rarely an easy listen, but White Chalk is her most deliberately difficult work, rife with unnerving imagery set against an austere, chilling interpretation of Victorian chamber music. There are few hooks, fewer verse-chorus-verse structures, and no traditional percussion (Jim White provides the off-kilter drum-beds) to speak of. And Harvey, trading in her guitar for a not-quite-in-tune piano, sings in an affected, breathy timbre entirely in her upper register. The cumulative effect is at once off-putting and captivating; consider the album’s striking cover, as well, and White Chalk is truly a masterful example of sustained tone.
More impressive, though, is the album’s critical fecundity. Harvey’s difficulty has long been a source of her appeal with critics—in particular, the confrontational gender politics that drove her first few albums—and White Chalk is perhaps her most dense, thematically richest work. She’s repeatedly proven that she can do explicit; here, she uses ambiguity to her advantage. Switching between first and third person, she complicates any kind of an autobiographical read—a dodgy prospect to begin with, but especially with Harvey—and writes fictions that depict deep fracture and both physical and spiritual violence. “Broken Harp,” for instance, opens with the plea, “Please don’t reproach me/For how empty my life has become,” but turns on the image of “Something metal/Tearing my stomach out.” The two-word refrain of lead single “When Under Ether” is an emotionlessly delivered “human kindness,” a loaded statement, given that the song can easily be interpreted as depicting an abortion (“Something’s inside me/Unborn and unblessed/Disappears in the ether/One world to the next”).
But the individual songs and, indeed, the album as a whole do not have to be read so literally; few albums either require or reward this kind of work. Again, it’s that interpretive leeway that makes White Chalk so compelling. To say that the album is, for instance, a song-by-song account of each phase of a single doomed relationship (starting with, “All of [her] being is now in pining,” for a man she calls “The Devil,” covering the smashed-teeth abuses of “The Piano,” and concluding with the soul-rending shrieks of exorcism from “The Mountain”) would be reductive of what makes White Chalk such a remarkable achievement. Harvey has certainly written enough material to make a case for that particular reading of the album, but it just isn’t that easy an album to pin down. No, White Chalk, wholly self-contained and uncompromised, is a work of literary depth and complexity.