CD Review: P J Harvey

White Chalk Island
Music ••• Sound •••

Many reviewers have been surprised that White Chalk is so quiet - which is sort of like being surprised that an Elvis Costello album has a sense of humor, or a Shakira album tends to make you tap your foot. Thing is, P J Harvey's music is frequently "quiet" - even when it's loud and abrasive.

Go back to the title track of Rid of Me. Sure, the chorus erupts into the scathing "Don't you wish you never, never met her," but it's just a momentary release; the rest of the song moves to a groove that, though tense, is hushed. And to anyone surprised at Harvey's adoption of a high, tremulous voice on White Chalk, go back to that same song and its plea of "Lick my legs, I'm on fire / Lick my lips, I'm desire."

Speaking of which, go back to Is This Desire? Even though it includes the relatively rocking "A Perfect Day Elise" and "The Sky Lit Up" (there's that high voice again) as well as electronics-infused workouts like "My Beautiful Leah" and "Joy," that album is mostly an understated, meditative affair. "The Wind," "The Garden," "The River" . . .

. . . and now comes White Chalk with "The Devil," "The Mountain," "The Piano." Speaking of which, although basing nearly an entire album on piano is indeed a departure for Harvey, her affinity for the instrument should come as no surprise, considering Desire's "The River" and "Angelene." Nor should it surprise anyone to hear her sing a new lyric like this one: "Please don't reproach me for how empty my life has become."

Maybe the shock of this new album, for many listeners, is that the contemplative piano music is coming after the electric-guitar romps of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and the electric-guitar heaves of Uh Huh Her - and that the lyric quoted above comes after Her rant of "Who the fuck do you think you are?"

As referenced in the album title itself, the stories from White Chalk are resolutely from the often bleak seascape of Harvey's Dorset home. And similar to previous times in her personal life, the artist is, I dare say, at sea. What's up with "The Devil"? "As soon as I'm left alone, the Devil wanders into my soul." What's asked of "Dear Darkness"? "Won't you cover me again?" In the end, what's the purpose of "White Chalk"? "White chalk hills are all I've known / White chalk hills will rot my bones." And speaking of which, who's the subject of "To Talk to You"? "Oh, grandmother / How I miss you / Under the earth / Wish I was with you."

It is, to be sure, a grim album of betrayal and loss. "All of my being is now in pining," Harvey sums up at the very start. "What finally cheered me now seems insignificant." And forgive me for saying so, but if you change the last vowel in that last word, you'll get exactly how she sings that last syllable - and maybe how she sees herself in the dark of White Chalk.