Oh God, I miss you
Is art a zero-sum game? Will continually raising the stakes of experimentation lead to empty noise? Will minimalism’s logical endpoint be nothingness? With so many creative approaches already claimed, artists have to take ever-bolder risks in the name of the new. It’s thrilling that they try, and even more gratifying when they succeed. But often, it seems they sabotage their work with their unilateralism. PJ Harvey’s new album, White Chalk, is one example of a problematic chance that doesn’t yield enough dividends. It’s thematic to a fault, so timid and isolated that it fades on contact.
Harvey has always been a provocateur and her earliest incarnations were classics. Dry’s proto-post-feminism, Rid of Me’s guitar-drenched exorcism, and To Bring Me Your Love’s intertwining of sex and religion all revealed daring glimpses of a greater vision. Scaling back intimately, 1998’s Is This Desire? (my favorite PJ Harvey album) then added a fascinating vulnerability to the lust. But more recently, something feels stalled. Uh Huh Her was mostly a placeholder, a less successful Hail to the Thief that tried to synthesize an entire career into one record. And now comes White Chalk, with its threadbare piano and adrift vocals, tiny-sounding by design. It’s mourning music for shut-ins; Harvey even plays up the association with her spectral Miss Havisham cover shot.
The entire album passes by me until the eighth track, “The Piano.” Currently the second single (how this album could have singles is baffling and amazing), it starts out as humbly as its predecessors. Harvey sings mutedly over the titular instrument, her voice numb and affected. But there’s also a drum machine now, underpinning the rhythm like a guilty heartbeat. It seems to gird her a bit. She starts to gain conviction even as her lyrics paint the same tired abstractions about ghosts. Finally, she just drops her defenses and moans, “Oh God, I miss you.” It’s so simple and yet it’s easily the most captivating moment thus far.
Is the “you” in question a lost lover, her abusive parents or God Himself? Was she abandoned like her Dickensian counterpart or the regretful abandoner? Is her object(s) of desire dead or just dead to her? For once, the vagueness works because her vocal delivery sells it. Whoever “you” is, it’s clearly still roiling her. The more moving moment though comes with the reprise, where Harvey literally seems to fracture. One voice singing, “Oh God, I miss you” is calm and matter-of-fact, doing her best to hold it together. But her other self is wild and untethered, ceding to the gulf of grief and remorse. She shakes under the revelation, defying White Chalk’s emotional embargo at last. Ironically, it’s only when Harvey stops singing about being haunted in hushed tones that she actually sounds haunted.
It’s highly possible that she meant this intentionally. This new album may be a kind of musical House of Bernarda Alba, where dammed emotions well up under pressure until they eventually explode. If so, “The Piano” could be viewed as the first sharp fissure in the wall and the primal, caterwauling closer, “The Mountain,” is the full cathartic release. However, this could also be a concept album that just adheres to its concept too slavishly. I don’t think absence should sound this absent of direction, loss so lost in its self-contained world. “The Piano” asserts how powerful PJ Harvey is when she steps through the gauze of repression. I just wish she hadn’t reduced the other songs to the cobwebs and cloisters she’s trapped herself in.
* MP3: "The Piano" - PJ Harvey from White Chalk [Buy it]