PJ Harvey, White Chalk

PJ Harvey: a fallen angel in mourning.

Sometimes the simplest music is the most affecting. So it goes with PJ Harvey's new studio album White Chalk, which often feels like a sequel to Björk's Vespertine. Absent are the scorched-earth guitars and feral vocals Harvey is known for; instead, Chalk finds solace and strength in desolation and ascetic arrangements. This is largely a piano-and-voice album: Icicles drip from the keys on standouts such as "The Devil" and "Dear Darkness," whose sparse atmospheres resemble a movie score. (Harvey recently decided to learn how to play the piano, which might explain the music's almost childlike innocence.) Perhaps most jarring for longtime fans, though, is when Harvey stretches her voice to its upper range. Instead of the booming brashness and overt sexuality of past works, she sounds like a fallen angel in mourning. The ethereal effect is reminiscent of 1998's Is This Desire?, although the soprano's croons and wordless wails on Chalk rely on the contrast between sounds and silence for emotional impact. This device works well in tandem with the fragile music, although it's a very different sort of vulnerability than listeners are used to from Harvey. That's hardly a bad thing: Chalk is exquisite and bewitching, an ephemeral collection of tunes that flies by too fast.

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