The ghost of Miss Harvey

The punk princess turns her screams to snivels on a gloomy, gorgeous departure.

Haily Gostas

PJ Harvey’s last studio album, the stripped-down and stubbornly raw “Uh Huh Her,” made like a love-hate letter (parts of which were allegedly addressed to alleged ex Vincent Gallo) where every last taste of its unflinchingly open-wound, f-off attitude was a sour one indeed.

Isn’t that how it always works? First, there is blind, cacophonous anger and all the damaged art that follows – then comes an uncontrollable, white-hot surge of hushed pain and its subsequent product’s bleaker departure. Realizing that it might be impossible to wholly heal without experiencing both, Harvey has made “White Chalk.”

Drifting away from her familiar brand of dirty blues-punk rock, it is a piano-driven set of songs created despite Harvey’s complete lack of ivory-tickling expertise. The result is like a chamber-gloom, torch-song carnival ride to one’s inner core, and possibly her most dizzyingly drastic work since the unrefined pulse and grind of her 1992 debut “Dry.”

But it’s also entirely different from it, a glass-delicate Gothic fairytale that just barely floats above surface thanks to her simplistic, ethereal piano-playing and a very new voice: Free of her usual howls and snarls, it is high, airy, almost choir boy-esque, made otherworldly by a labyrinth of layered echoes.

The instrument switch seems to have forced Harvey to alter the way she makes music, but the sound remains doggedly consistent throughout, even if it strains her. From opener “The Devil” (which sounds like the “You Are Free” b-side Cat Power never made) and beyond, she’s hovering almost exclusively on the ceiling of her range, using the piano as much as for percussion as melody in lieu of “White Chalk’s” little collaboration. Every note is soaked in solitude. Even the simple, repetitive pattern that gently drives “When Under Ether” (her understated, wonderfully strange first-choice single) has menace on its mind.

Much of the others follow suit. “Grow Grow Grow” whips like a whirlwind, back and forth from ghostly haunted house rattling to spirited harpsichord-dotted classicism; the a cappella opening of “Broken Harp” – “Please, don’t reproach me for, for how empty my life has become” – is followed by the plucks of what sounds like, yes, a broken harp, supported by distant horns. The incomparably gorgeous title track is an underwater-sounding ballad that flowers into one of the record’s more baroque moments thanks to a splash of harmonica and drums.

Lyrically, “White Chalk” can be oppressively dark, even disgusting (bloody hands, hammer-smashed teeth, decaying trees), but Harvey’s songs never seem to come easily. Instead, they sound like the product of sweaty exertion and lots of agonizing pain. It’s a difficult listen, because it’s hard to tell if these songs are character sketches or the real deal – Harvey teetering on the edge, aching for old loves, ready to give everything up. Though she has always rejected the notion that her songs are autobiographical, it’s still a little too close for comfort.

Maybe no one’s supposed to know, but with very little catharsis – there’s no big, explosive, purging moment here, unless you count Harvey’s banshee-style wailing on final track “The Mountain” – “White Chalk’s” pretty misery tends to pan out like whispered shadow play and, postfinish, hang in the air like a dense gray mist. In certain instances, the album’s claustrophobic intimacy is more digestible, even powerful; on a particularly bad day, “White Chalk” might be the longest, loneliest half-hour in the world, like Harvey trying desperately to haunt her own soul in hopes that there’s something left.

But while it might not be her best (it’s certainly not her most energetic Ö yuk-yuk), “White Chalk’s” melancholy-but-stately songs find Harvey at her most fragile, beautiful, human.