What immediately pulls you in is the cover, which resembles one of those eerie portraits from the early 1900s, when people were forbidden to smile for photographers. Next, you’re gutted by the stark haunting sound, hinted at on such earlier PJ Harvey tracks as “In the Garden” (from Is This Desire?), but now fully explored on this song cycle which ruminates over childhood melancholia, unborn babies and unspoken betrayals.
For the most part, Harvey simmers in a childlike pitch that might be compared to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (moments after learning an ugly adult truth) or one of those creepy white-haired kids from the Children of the Corn films, practicing how to burn something with her eyes. Further driving the album’s primitive and uncomplicated agenda, Harvey plays much of it on the piano, an instrument she admits to being less than comfortable with.
Most of the preliminary press for this disc focused on “When Under Ether,” a song already widely interpreted as being about an abortion. But Harvey is too shrewd a writer to let someone else stamp a meaning onto her work, and the open-endedness of her writing allows that the song could be about a miscarriage or even an alien infant abduction and still work. What’s never in doubt, however, is that tracks like that one or the title track will sound unsettling next to anything else you’ll load onto your iPod this year. And that’s deliberate.
This album floats along in a timeless limbo; songs hang around like ghosts for a brief time and then leave a stinging afterburn on your psyche for days afterwards. But don’t let White Chalk’s brevity or shoddy slipcover art make you think this is a minor work or just another accomplished time marker like Uh Huh Her. No, time will prove that PJ Harvey’s quietest and most succinct album may be the one that resonates loudest and longest.
Serene Dominic writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].