White Chalk – P. J. Harvey

I’ve been listening to this album since it came out in 2007 and I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s set to be remembered as a true classic.
Of course, all of P.J. Harvey’s albums are great, but White Chalk seems to distill of all the her best ideas down to very simple, but fragile statements. For a long time, I struggled to think of a way to describe the atmosphere she creates on this album and now I think I’ve got it. It’s the aural equivalent of listening a conversation that you were never intended to hear. The stories are evocative, but strangely incomplete and yet almost painfully intimate and confessional. It is as though the listener should feel guilty for listening, as if they were reading a teenage girl’s hidden diary.
A perfect example is the song “When Under Ether”. Lyrically, this song seems to be describing the anaesthetised state of a woman undergoing an abortion, although P.J. Harvey herself denies that this is indeed the subject she was thinking of. Despite, Harvey’s denial, it is difficult to escape this interpretation and as a result the reception of the song is coloured by this idea. The vocal performance, like the majority on this album, is naked, heartbreakingly fragile and without artifice.
In an interview in The Wire, Harvey confessed to leaving notes around the house reminding herself to sing as if she were a child again on this album. That’s not to say she is imitating an hysterical toddler, but is stripping her voice of the guile, artfulness and insincerities of a professional singer. This approach has allowed her to plumb the emotional depths of each song and deliver performances that can, at times, send a shiver down the spine.
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