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PJ Harvey - White Chalk

PJ Harvey, White Chalk

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

PJ Harvey’s first album since 2004’s raw, earthy Uh Huh Her marks an amazing change of pace for the singer-songwriter into more ethereal, even Bjork-like territory.

Based almost entirely around stark, minimal, repetitive piano and organ figures and featuring almost no guitars or percussion at all, the album straddles the boundary between contemporary classical and Victorian American vaudeville.

And while it takes some getting used to, particularly during its most stark moments, it’s a stunning accomplishment that underlines just how brave and ambitious PJ Harvey remains.

The album was recently preceded by the release of the single When Under Ether, a former IndieLondon single of the week, which beguiles with its breathtaking beauty. Built around a sombre piece of piano, and Harvey’s achingly tender vocal, it’s a statement of defiance that’s packed with thought-provoking imagery and an almost cinematic sound.

From the moment it begins, it almost sends shivers down the spine (in a good way) and just keeps getting better the more you listen to it.

It’s followed on the album by the similarly breathtaking title track White Chalk, which finds Harvey even more tender vocally, and set against some fine acoustic strumming. Her soaring vocals midway through prove entirely captivating, while the gentle riffs are a shimmering delight.

The pianos return for another of the highlights, Silence, which rates among the most instrumentally layered on the LP – complete with a ticking clock-like backbeat and some more lyrics aimed at empowerment in the face of personal despair.

And The Piano unfolds amid more stark, even violent imagery, that’s packed with a keen sense of loneliness and longing (“oh God, I miss you”). The bursts of electronica are particularly impressive, particularly when interwoven with some strings.

The remainder of the album requires a little more patience and may not be to everyone’s taste, even Harvey’s own fans, but it’s a mark of her determination to try new things and continually challenge herself that she’s not afraid to be different.

White Chalk is therefore a deeply inspired return from the artist that comes highly recommended, if only for the gobsmacking beauty of its very best moments.

Download picks: When Under Ether, White Chalk, Silence, The Piano

Track listing:

  1. The Devil
  2. Dear Darkness
  3. Grow Grow Grow
  4. When Under Ether
  5. White Chalk
  6. Broken Harp
  7. Silence
  8. To Talk To You
  9. The Piano
  10. Before Departure
  11. The Mountain