In 2004, PJ Harvey released Uh Huh Her, the one album in her catalog that I don’t consider myself a fan of. It’s not a bad album, but its lo-fi guitar tunes felt like a retread coming from an artist who I’ve always loved because of how she defies expectations. While some always wish that PJ would keep making music that has a certain sound, I think she’s at her best when experimenting and doing something that nobody expects her to do.
This is why I think 2007’s White Chalk is probably her most underrated, and possibly the album by her I respect the most. After being known early on for her aggressive bluesy guitar songs (and even being acclaimed earlier in the decade for the straight-forward rock of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), PJ chose to set down the guitar entirely, instead writing a set of songs for the piano — an instrument she admittedly barely knew how to play. She also traded in her deep roar of a voice, singing the songs on White Chalk in a high, ethereal voice that is at the very top of her range.
The resulting sound is ghostly, eerie, creepy, but also beautiful. It creates a unique distillation of moods that only PJ Harvey ever seems to be able to conjure out of me. It blows my mind that the same artist who made this album also made Rid of Me, which topped my 90s list and was pure anarchy, chaos, and rage. On White Chalk, everything is extremely delicate, including PJ’s personality which has gone from larger than life (like on “50 ft Queenie”) to someone who seems unsure of herself at every turn. Meanwhile, Rid of Me‘s swaggering rock has been replaced by songs that rarely feature much more than the piano or a broken harp.
White Chalk ends up pulling off something that very few modern albums do: it sounds completely unlike anything else that came before it. It is an incredibly self-contained work that manages to create its own little universe in the span of 34 minutes. PJ takes everything that makes her unique and identifiable as an artist and reduces all of it to the bare essentials.
Despite the new sound and a completely different persona, White Chalk is still identifiable as a PJ Harvey album. The one constant in her work over the years has been her lyrics, and on White Chalk they hit harder than ever with the spare instrumentation. A recurring theme throughout the album seems to be childbirth or abortions: on “When Under Ether” she sings “something’s inside me/unborn and unblessed/disappears in the ether/one world to the next,” joined by an ominous, repeating piano line. The title track is one of my favorite songs by her, a lovely meditation on her homeland of Dorset that also references an unborn child at the end.
Most of White Chalk is about a feeling of being solitary and lonely, but it’s also a more hopeful album than some give it credit for. “Before Departure” sounds like a funeral song of sorts, but I think it’s more about a choice to live a simpler life. “Silence” has similar themes, with PJ singing “I freed myself and remained alone.” Of course, there’s plenty of darker material on the album too, which is par for the course for PJ.
While critics usually lap up anything that PJ throws their way, the response to White Chalk was more muted, understandably so. It’s an extremely hard album to pin down from an artist who is the same way. It’s also not the type of album that ever makes these silly end-of-decade lists — it was perhaps self-contained to a fault, containing little in the way of broader statements about modern culture or life. With some patience, though, White Chalk proves itself to be maybe the most daring album in PJ’s catalog, an album that is completely unlike anything else and reveals its greatness slowly, in a different way than its predecessors.