“When I grow up…” is a mantra that many of us have heard and said throughout our years and it’s a statement that has shades of fallacy. Do any of us really know when we have truly grown? What about an artist, someone who ages in front of our very eyes and ears—do their evolution and growth ever end? My favorite artists keep on evolving, changing and challenging themselves in their craft and at times their loyal audience. Thom Yorke, Bjork, Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy and Bob Dylan come to mind as artists who are constantly molding their art to new shades of sonic brilliance. But my favorite has to be one Ms. Polly Jean Harvey. From the first time I heard her strums and youthful howls in “Sheela-Na-Gig” there was something in her voice that reached out and shook me. Polly Jean has a habit of taking listeners by the throat and caressing their hearts in the same song. She’s tough, cool, cerebral, romantic, dark, and sweet with infinite sensuality wrapped up in a breathless package that many, like me, respect and adore from afar.
Ever since Dry I had followed her intensely with every step, every song and every album. Not all have been my favorites but I have seen slight changes in the moods, lyrics and sounds of each release. Still, my favorite will always be Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea, the album I first bought while on my journey of self-discovery when I lived in New Orleans. I feel like she, herself, is searching for self-discovery in each of her creations. There is exploration within each release from an artist searching for answers in her muse. Mostly we find more intriguing questions in her songs, which sometimes are even more captivating than the answers we seek to find in her albums as a whole.
White Chalk is PJ Harvey stripped, at her most exposed, yet even with the stark state of these tracks we only get a glimpse of her genius. She no longer hides behind the mega licks we know and love from Rid of Me and Stories from the City. Think of this is a continuation of the lo-fi vibe that PJ started in Uh-Huh Her but more so. White Chalk is the most naked and revealing we have ever heard from PJ. It’s clearly her own voice but the question remains: is she really singing about her own life? The best artists, most favorites whom I mentioned up above, write with shades of their own experiences but have a way of making each song universal in nature, where, in essence, it becomes less about the artist and more about our own lives and our own experiences. That’s the mark of greatness.
“As soon as I’m left alone/ the devil wanders into my soul…and I pretend to myself,” sings Harvey on the opening track “The Devil.” It sounds like a twisted Spector-esque ’60s lovelorn pop song without the harmonious ending. It’s an interesting choice to start off White Chalk because the majority of the album has very minimal instrumentation. In fact, it sounds like PJ is getting her Under the Pink on, as she un-strapped the guitar and took up the piano keys, a-la Tori Amos. Although most of her songs are piano based but that’s where the Tori comparisons started and end.
This is unmistakably a PJ Harvey album, as you can hear from the second track “Dear Darkness.” Even with the dark piano chords, the lyrics are pure PJ. “Dear Darkness” sounds like an open letter to her pain and sorrow as she asks “won’t you cover me, again?” We’ve all been there down with no hope in the horizon. I love the “tightening and tightening” angelic harmonies backing as PJ sings, “the words are tightening around my throat.” I hear it as the death nail of a relationship when there are no words to say just the stares of anguished confusion. (I’ve been there before; it’s a state I would never want to relive ever again.) The space where lightness these two people once shared is now shadowed by the blanket of darkness which has not only covered their voices but their whole love affair.
I love the way PJ captures the longing with her classical-based piano keys on “Grow Grow Grow.” In this song, PJ sings about a devout naturalist hoping the seed she plants will help her sprout love from above ground. I adore the imagery of trampling the seed with her heavy boots. “When Under Ether” could be about a death of child, a love, or someone fighting a disease. The stark piano makes this song an almost funereal lament to the passing of a soul, that in someway was a stranger, but still had a connection whether it is physical or emotional in nature to the protagonist of the song.
The title track sounds as if it would have fit perfectly on Dancehall on Louse Point, PJ’s collaboration with John Parish. This acoustic beauty continues the theme of loss of life as heard on “When Under Ether.” Is this song about the white chalk that is seen at crime scenes around a dead body or about the death of an unborn child? “The Piano” is one of the most powerful songs on the album, with the haunting refrain of “Oh God, I miss you,” revisiting on the recurring themes of White Chalk the appearance of ghost, whether it be in spirits or memories, signaling loss or death is most vibrant in this lively song.
This intimate song, “Broken Harp,” is a sign for love gone wrong. The harp is a symbol that is used when love is first felt, with angels playing the instrument overhead. I felt a connection with the final lyrics of this song: “I tried to learn your language/ but fell asleep/Half-undressed/ Unrecognizable to myself.” I have lived those words, getting lost in someone else’s life and finding your own identity has vanished in the process. This is why I love PJ Harvey, when she sings it’s not just a reflection of her life; I like to think that with her own voice she is connecting to our own lives. That is a sign of pure greatness.
With every album, there is a new side of Polly that is uncovered. She is a complex artist with many shades and this why many of us who admire her. She’s a mystery to me, and many live to hear the latest unveiling of her words, her passion and her gift to unleash it on us every few years. And this year’s incarnation is no different. White Chalk is the latest piece to the mystery that is Polly Jean Harvey. Will we ever learn the answer to the question, `who is Polly Jean Harvey?’ I hope not. My wish is that she, like one of her idols Patti Smith, merely continues to drop clues on albums and songs. Sometimes the yearning for answers by listening to the ever changing growth of an artist is better than knowing the real thing.
Shannon Wright – Maps of Tacit
Nina Nastasia – On Leaving
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – No More Shall We Part
Stream: “When Under Ether”