Looking back now, it’s hard to conceive of PJ Harvey’s career without an album like White Chalk – the PJ Harvey we know now is a multi-instrumentalist, an artist hell-bent on trying new things, pushing her voice (physically and metaphorically) into unchartered territories. Back then, of course we knew that Harvey was a restless shape-shifter – the trajectory from raucous albums like Rid of Me (1993) through to the gothic blues of To Bring You My Love (1995) and murky guitar-and-electronics of Is This Desire? (1998) told us so – but nothing could have prepared listeners, really, for quite how much of a volte-face White Chalk turned out to be when it appeared in the autumn of 2007.
After the release of the scrappy Uh Huh Her in 2004, Harvey seemed to be at something of an artistic dead-end. Uh Huh Her had the air of an artist reaching out, perhaps uncertainly, groping for new turns – and in songs like “The Pocket Knife” and “The Desperate Kingdom of Love”, she did – but there were also uninspired re-treads (“Cat on the Wall”) and a generally jumbled, chaotic style at odds with the focus of previous records.
White Chalk represents everything that Uh Huh Her isn’t – it is focused, cohesive, all of a piece, and everywhere you turn there is something bold and new for Harvey. Uh Huh Her had a joyful silliness in parts, which White Chalk entirely lacks – it is straightforwardly serious and whenever it threatens to be dour, the fragile beauty of Harvey’s melodies keep it from becoming too suffocatingly intense.
Of course, the main thing to say about White Chalk from the beginning is that its foundations are unlike any of Harvey’s other records. Renowned as a guitarist favouring murky, ferocious, bass-heavy sounds, Harvey traded her main instrument entirely in favour of an upright piano and – not only this – shunned the familiar bluesy growl of her voice for a delicate, high-pitched softness. Her “church voice,” as she told journalists at the time.
Harvey had employed piano on her previous records sparingly and sporadically, including playing the gorgeous and simple piano part on “Teclo” from To Bring You My Love, but never had entire songs been built on the instrument. How would Harvey, known for her heavy, energetic, pulsating rock music, possibly translate that onto a piano?
The answer is – completely differently. White Chalk is both an outlier in the PJ Harvey catalogue, yet one of the most PJ Harvey of PJ Harvey records, somehow. Singing in a natural voice and playing on an instrument she could barely master when she began writing the songs in 2005, there is an absolute childlike purity to these songs that is bewitching to behold. Faced with these mysterious, untold piano keys, Harvey picked out a series of haunting melodies and matched them with some of the most personal and evocative lyrics of her career. To say it was inspired would be an understatement.
White Chalk is like a Brontë novel in musical form; it has a gothic, autumnal Victorian melodrama about it. Over the course of barely 35 minutes, Harvey – in character as the austere, ghostly spectre depicted on the album cover – takes the listener on a dark, unremittingly bleak journey through the central character’s turmoil. A surface reading may suggest that the woman’s dark night of the soul (“as soon as I am left alone, the devil wanders into my soul / and I wait for you there”) leads to the conception of a child (“Grow Grow Grow”), who is then terminated during pregnancy (“When Under Ether”), leading to inner disorder that culminates in the shrieking drama of “The Mountain”. I always wondered whether Harvey’s guttural screams at the end of the record represent the woman throwing herself from the mountain to her death. But, as always, Harvey’s songs work both on a simplistic surface level and more deeply.
Harvey began debuting her spindly, spooky new piano songs at solo shows in 2006, including at the Hay-on-Wye Festival and at Copenhagen’s Royal Opera House. At odds with the dark gravity of the material, Harvey cut a jovial figure on stage, self-deprecating about her piano playing and making jokes about insects flying on stage. The shows were utterly electrifying, and she would go on to expand the theme on her solo tour of 2007-08.
More than perhaps any of the other demo recordings in the series, certainly since the incendiary 4-Track Demos in 1993 (the companion piece to Rid of Me), the White Chalk demos can stand alone as their own entity. It’s not hard to imagine it being released as its own album as it is, such is its strength of character, clarity of vision, and consistency of sound. Sure, there are odd mistakes (a couple of bum piano notes in “Silence”) but there is a visceral power to the material and indeed to these original recordings that recalls other stripped-back, powerful, austere records like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.
The finished product (on which Harvey worked with long-time collaborators John Parish and Flood for the first time since Is This Desire?) added subtle supplementary colours and textures – a male vocal, percussion, harmonica – but the core is there from the very beginning and, in some cases, the original recordings convey a simple, sparse beauty that is not quite as pronounced on the finished album. As with some of the series, some demo tracks are lifted for the finished versions, notably “Grow Grow Grow” and “To Talk to You”, but there are some intriguing alternates.
“The Devil” is spare, with piano and double-tracked voice much like the final version (not the fascinating rhythmic version as heard on the White Chalk EPK), but there is a notable moment where the tempo slows and Harvey, tentatively, picks out the bass keys of the piano. It retains much of the dark drama of the finished version, without the wordless vocalising at the start.
The demo of “Dear Darkness” is quite the revelation, just gorgeous: while the album version features additional male vocals and instrumental textures (including percussion) that wrap around Harvey’s simple piano part, there’s a real sad, sparse beauty to this solo version with just Harvey’s voice and piano, and high harmony vocals. As ever with the demo series, your mileage may vary with where your preferences lie but, for me, there is a sad vulnerability to this original that is peerless.
The bones of “Grow Grow Grow” are there from the beginning, with the additional textures on the album version added to the original demo tracks. It sounds like Danny Elfman in The Nightmare Before Christmas, all ghoulish, nocturnal melodrama, with the lyrical allusions to the “twisted oak grove” and Harvey’s muted, creepy vocalising.
“When Under Ether”, surely one of Harvey’s boldest lead singles for just how un-commercial it is in a line of un-commercial lead singles, swims in gorgeous reverb in its demo and on the hook – “human kindness” – there is an increased urgency to the instrumentation missing from the finished version. Which, of course, is no less haunting but somehow loses some of its eeriness despite Harvey’s vocal being even more whispered and gentle. There’s an innate grief and bleakness to the way in which the innocence of the vocals on these songs is contrasted with some of the brutal imagery – “something’s inside me, unborn and unblessed / disappears in the ether, this world to the next.”
The first side concludes with the sublime “White Chalk”, where the busy arrangement on the album version is stripped back to contain just Harvey’s piano and voice (a la the spellbinding live version as seen and heard during her 2007 promo appearances.) The ‘white chalk’ refers to the Dorset cliffs of Harvey’s home county, and the song is replete with those local references, including allusions to the Cerne, Lyme, and “a path cut fifteen hundred years ago.” The demo contains some additional wordless vocalising, and the song as a whole is one of Harvey’s best – incredibly doleful and sad and lost. In her live version, Harvey incorporated some harmonica along with the mournful piano chords during its instrumental break. If the demo had included this part, all ghostly and sombre, it would achieve magnificent perfection for me.
The strange, offbeat “Broken Harp” begins proceedings on the second half of the record and is even more rudimentary than the finished version, although shares much of its DNA. “Can you forgive me?” a chorus of Harveys ask the object of her woe, which, on the demo, is revealed to be someone by the name of Joshie. Josh Klinghoffer, perhaps, who toured with her in 2004?
The main difference with the elegant “Silence”, one of Harvey’s slow-burning gems with a lyric of bereft longing (“I freed myself / and remained alone”), is the absence of any of the subtle but pulsing percussion and, in particular, the way the climax is far quieter and less distinct on the demo version. Here is an example, perhaps, of where the finished version succeeds: the dampened vocal coda on the demo is swapped out for strident, ringing voices on the album version and the effect is a stunning, hairs-on-end moment.
A couple of songs later, the reverse is true: the album version of “The Piano” has a barely contained longing and yearning, with the pleas of “oh god, I miss you” sung in a strained whisper. On the demo, Harvey lets loose and it’s the only time on the record that the bluesy roar of yore is unleashed. Perhaps the finished version fits the mood of the White Chalk album better as a whole, but the contrast between the delicate instrumentation and the comparative thunder of Harvey’s voice on the demo is a delight. Again, your mileage may vary but for me, the urgency of the piano accompaniment and vocal on the demo of “The Piano” wins out for me.
Sandwiched between “Silence” and “The Piano” is the utterly austere “To Talk to You,” surely one of the saddest and loneliest songs in the Harvey canon. The demo was built on for the finished version, but this original is unfurnished and contains only Harvey’s voice and repetitive, hypnotic piano. She sings it to her late grandmother, Mary, and fantasises about laying on her grave, yearning to talk to her (“oh grandmother, I’m so lonely”). She sings it in a disturbingly off-kilter high voice, and the idiosyncratic piano notes Harvey selects only add to the disquiet. The album version is a subtle tapestry of weird textures, but the demo is direct in its overwhelming sorrow and the effect is really quite beautiful.
“Before Departure” is simple and bare, even more so than the album version as it focuses just on Harvey’s voice and piano, and I have always thought of it as the prologue to the ‘final chapter’ of this album/novel/album. Harvey says a sad farewell to her friends and her family before the rumbling intensity of “The Mountain”, where the piano chords repeat and build into an avant-garde, screaming crescendo. It is a bold ending to a bold piece of art.
And that’s what I think when I think of White Chalk – it is a true piece of art. PJ Harvey is a true artist. An album like To Bring You My Love more than proved that Harvey was interested in moving forward, challenging herself, trying new things. Each Harvey album became a fascinating new piece of work, but nothing could quite prepare listeners for White Chalk. I remember loving it when it came out for how fresh and different it felt, how bold it was after Uh Huh Her, but as the years went on I began to crave the more gutsy, bloody Harvey records.
But, these days, I am firmly back on the White Chalk train. It is a pivotal album in her career and, fundamentally, a brilliant collection of songs. There is an elegant majesty to the material; the use of the piano meant Harvey was forced to write in a new way – to find different chord structures, different changes, different melodic paths. She worked hard through 2005 and 2006 on whittling down dozens of contenders to the eleven songs that form the basis of this marvel of a record. I am continuously impressed by the invention of the writing, by her commitment to character, to the strange notes Harvey picks out on the piano by virtue of her lack of versatility. And yet it never sounds amateur: you will not find complex Tori Amos piano flourishes anywhere on this record, but there is a powerful intensity in Harvey’s rhythms.
Thinking about it now, White Chalk makes total sense in the context of her catalogue. The introduction here of more folk-based instruments (including the autoharp Harvey brought out on tour for reimagined versions of “Grow Grow Grow” and “Down By The Water”) and a high vocal style led to Let England Shake, and Harvey’s glorious tour of 2007-08, where she mixed in these new songs with reinventions of old ones and introduced intense solo versions of compositions like “My Beautiful Leah” and “Electric Light”, made all of these different facets of her artistry hang together well. It was like a PJ Harvey art exhibition, all these different paintings from different periods making total logic as a whole.
Harvey hasn’t returned to the piano on a studio record since, although her soundtrack work for stage productions (including Hedda Gabler and All About Eve) has offered tantalising glimpses into her process and the hope that, possibly, the piano may make a reappearance. White Chalk is quite an extraordinary piece of work and shows again, if there was any doubt, that she is a true artist, a top-quality songwriter, constantly committed to challenging herself and evolving. It’s the sound of a ghostly English autumn, a lonely woman’s turmoil, the bleakness of its lyrics (“what formerly cheered me now seems insignificant”) set to music of precise and delicate beauty.
Once again with PJ Harvey, it turns out that supposed dead-ends can lead to brand new avenues. Where she would go next was truly anyone’s guess…