White Chalk - PJ Harvey
White Chalk, the album, was a big move. It's a musical departure for PJ Harvey, in that it's almost exclusively piano and vocals. And it's a stylistic one, in that it's mostly ballads, strung loosely together in a life story. (This from a woman known better for avant-rock singles.) It's a story from the age when young women with unexpected pregnancies would be disappeared by their families to 'clinics', and came back no-longer-pregnant. It follows its heroine through that journey, and the life that follows - entering adulthood with a burden of unspoken recriminations, and discovering morality amid a fog of compromises. More than any other album in her catalog, this one hurts. It doesn't have to be a tragedy, but it's not an easy journey, either. The lyrics read like brainstorms for diary entries, with a privacy and vulnerability that are extremely difficult to pull off without becoming sappy. Harvey manages the feat by telling the story in a way that never acknowledges the listener; you are allowed, somehow, to hear these thoughts, but they are never for your ears. That's a bold vision, for an album destined for the 'Rock/Pop/R&B' shelf at your local record store.
White Chalk, the title track, is the scene following the abortion. (If you've heard the single When Under Ether, listen closer.) The music takes the tempo of footsteps in no hurry, and it gathers harmonies slowly. The speaker is wandering Dorset's chalk cliffs, beginning to question the platitudinous correctness of decisions made on her behalf, meanwhile watching the white chalk stick to her skin and clothes - creating whiteness where it isn't wanted. It's an engaging riddle on innocence and responsibility, which builds to a final quartet in which the music falls away, and the speaker becomes suddenly, abruptly alive to her own doubt. It's a haunting turn in the story, and it's a moment that stays with you for a long time.
Dorset's cliffs meet at the sea
where I walked, our unborn child in me
white chalk, poor scattered lands
scratch my palms; there's blood on my hands
Red Queen - COIL
Red Queen, from Musick to Play in the Dark, is a sprawling piece of music. In the course of about 10 minutes, it paces through a strange interrogation, taking several turns that bring slightly different instrumentation, and slightly changed aspects between listener and speaker. Some verses are like questions asked in self-doubt, and others step outside the self and become more like prosecution. There's a palpable feeling of steady, forward motion to the song, something like a carriage ride in the dark. Vocals make insistent questions from front-and-center, while piano chases and mooged-up words flicker in the periphery of your attention. Throughout, it's uncertainty elevated to incrimination - a private fraud, just about to be exposed for all the world to see. It is uncomfortable, it is challenging, and it is unlike anything else in my collection.
COIL's members are from the oldest of the old-guard of experimental industrial, and the artistic competence at work here is beyond question. But by the same token, this track has no desire to provide entertainment - it's a fascinating thing to put yourself through, but, well... if you find this on the jukebox someplace, find another bar. ;) On the other hand, if you enjoy music that can push buttons and shine light on things most often left in the dark, try this on.
Now that you've absorbed it
into your system
now that you've allowed it
to be true
Now that you've neutralized it
made it safe
made it yours
...what are you going to do?
Black MIrror - The Arcade Fire
I'll admit that The Arcade Fire's second album was a let-down, at first. Their debut, Funeral, was a masterpiece - a classic, if we can tag it with that label so soon. But, it smacked of a band with exactly one great album in it. When I got my hands on the follow-up, Neon Bible, I tried to keep my expectations low. And, well, it met my lowered expectations. Different, at least - no attempt to suck the blood from their best work, just a competent, enthusiastic dozen. I just didn't hear the intelligence or the personality of Funeral, here - after those brilliant songs about the sentimental secrets of my generation, here was something that sounded, well... overly sentimental. An album that sounded less like New Orleans' French Quarter, and more like Disneyland's New Orleans Square. An album to fulfill a contractual obligation, I guess. Oh, well.
And then, it came up in the shuffle one day, at least a year later, and I finally heard the album, on its own merits - and I was blown away. This really is another face of the band that made Funeral. That 'Disney-ness' I heard is not accidental; where Funeral hooks you with phrases like playground rhymes, Black Mirror does it with builds like cartoon musicals. Really, it isn't easy to follow - it's about finding truth amid all the noise and distraction of the world we live in - trying to read the pages of a 'neon bible', if you like. There are layers of misdirection in the music itself. But the final product, if you're really paying attention, is a perfect follow-up.
Black Mirror is the title track, and it serves as a good doorman to the rest of the album - if you can't get past this one, best keep moving. But if it touches a nerve in you - if you can find the truths tucked in its corners, then there's a whole lot of music to be heard, here.
Their names are never spoken
the curse is never broken...
mirror, mirror on the wall
show me where their bombs will fall