Friday, September 25, 2009

Random Release: "Diminished" Sound

I have a love-terrified relationship with PJ Harvey. I love (most of) her albums, her unique (yet oddly familiar) approach to songwriting and her unorthodox ability to deconstruct what is deemed “pop” music and still keep it (usually) accessible. (There are a lot of parenthetical blurbs in that sentence, for which I apologize.) And yet her persona and lyrical imagery frankly scare the bejeezus out of me.

As with most of her albums, there is often one instrument that seems to be the focal point/driving force for the majority of the songs. More often than not its guitar (Dry, Stories from the City…), which showcased her grunge-like routes as well as her indie pop sensibilities, though at times she has leaned heavily on organ (To Bring You My Love, Is this Desire?) for a dark, heavy dredging through the mire of human desperation. With 2007's White Chalk its piano. And in a word: Yikes.

Minimal instrumentation is commonplace on many PJ Harvey records, and she can be a formidable weapon with simply her voice and a guitar. In most instances, White Chalk is little more than piano with some other non-intrusive instrument(s) to accompany, plus that ever-mesmerizing voice. In this instance, she mostly sings in a register much higher than the earthy, she-baritone-to-banshee-wail that we’re all in love with. Polly is exposed, emotive, often tender and in every way human. What makes White Chalk so moving is not that it’s so emotionally open (Polly is often that to an uncomfortable degree), but that it’s so very fragile. Every song sounds as if it could break with a breath or a hostile glare, but this doesn’t mean they’re weak, only available, allowing the listener to let down their guard and enter a world that is not of the cut and paste mundane.

Not that you’ll feel safe, even for a moment.

Polly’s music often listens like the soundtrack of a rollicking decent into hell…or at least madness. And if this is the case, White Chalk is easily that objective achieved. Pervading the entire album is an undercurrent both eerie and ominous. Let’s face it, when the first song is called The Devil and the second Dear Darkness, you know you’re someplace where the sun don’t shine too often. However, there’s no apprehension of approaching doom and no screaming portent of dread to come. The danger isn’t even at present, but already past. This is the aftermath of the tidal wave, the earthquake, the finger of some deity come down to wreak havoc and now gone. The scant, brittle survivors are these eleven songs. Polly moans, screeches and howls, conjuring up all sorts of horrifying scenarios (death, isolation, abortion), and yet there is a precise beauty in all this despair. The darkness she brings down is simply an inverted canvas, where colors are all painted in negatives and the brush the tip of her reaching fingers.

If you track her releases, it’s interesting how in general Polly has “diminished” in her sound. The thick, heady drive of Dry peeling away little by little over the years, never losing texture or depth, but using less to achieve fullness. White Chalk is the next logical step after 2004’s Uh-Huh Her, and for me the golden moment of 2007. It’s an album to set a dark ambience, but there are layers to be delved into which beg a closer listen. So don’t let the quietness fool you, there’s plenty of power, plenty of angst and plenty to be afraid of.

Go, Polly, go!

Three Key Tracks: The Devil, White Chalk, The Mountain

Live video of her performing the title track.

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