Sometimes the simplest music is the most affecting. And so it goes with PJ Harvey's new studio album, White Chalk. Absent are the scorched-earth guitars and feral vocals of previous releases. Instead, Chalk finds solace and strength in ascetic arrangements.
This is largely a piano-and-voice album. Icicles drip from the ivories on such standouts as "The Devil" and "Dear Darkness," songs whose atmospherics resemble movie scores. Harvey recently learned how to play piano, which probably explains the childlike innocence of this music.
As for her voice, Harvey stretches its upper range. She sounds like a fallen angel in mourning. The ethereal effect is reminiscent of 1998's Is This Desire?, although the singer's soprano croon and wordless wails on Chalk rely on the contrast between sound and silence for emotional impact. This device works well in tandem with the fragile music, but it's a very different sort of vulnerability than listeners are used to hearing from Harvey. Not that it's a bad thing. In fact, Chalk is exquisite and bewitching -- an ephemeral collection of tunes that flies by too fast.