PJ Harvey is the Madonna of alternative rock: a powerful female chameleon who explores themes of love, sex, and religion with sometimes unnerving theatricality. Both are masters of reinvention, restless and uncompromising, but where Madonna is a product and a driver of pop culture, Harvey is disconnected from the mainstream's shiny surfaces. She's been a feral animal, bruised femme fatale, avant-garde poetess, and bare-bones troubadour, and along the way she's cobbled a brutally affecting musical catalog.
Today the British singer and songwriter introduces yet another chapter with the release of her eighth studio album, "White Chalk" (Island). Here, Harvey is a ghost. She's traded her guitar for plinking, ethereal piano notes and her yowling alto for an airy quiver that pushes well past her comfort zone into the highest reaches of her register. No pain, no song seems to be one of Harvey's guiding principles, and it's moved her to extremes on this project.
But instead of confronting her losses in anger or agony, Harvey allows herself to be haunted by them. The music is positively spectral, as if she's set up her sound board in the spaces where her absent lover, unborn child, and grandmother used to be.
Those characters, or their shadows, float through the 11 short songs on "White Chalk." So does "The Devil," who enters Harvey's soul on the very first track, a netherworldly twist on a bouncy Beach Boys theme. That perversion of classic pop forms recurs throughout the album. Harvey composes a tender love letter in waltz time that begins "Dear Darkness," and poisons the well of English folk by playing the title instrument on "Broken Harp." Despite her pleading, the seeds she plants in "Grow Grow Grow" never do, and the song's tinkling keyboards, ornamented with garish glissandos, sound mocking and mean.
Harvey has never shied away from the truth, no matter how harsh or intimate. The album's first single, "When Under Ether," is a bewitching sketch of an abortion. "Before Departure" reads like a rough draft of a suicide note - awkward, heartfelt prose torn from a journal and set to Harvey's dark, repetitive chords. On "The Piano," a woozy, propulsive song, Harvey conflates violence and affection beyond recognition, singing "my fingers sting where I feel your fingers have been/ Ghostly fingers moving my limbs/ Oh, God, I miss you."
After making her last record, "Uh Huh Her," in isolation at her home studio in the rural west of England, Harvey has reunited with drummer Jim White, keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, and longtime colleagues John Parish and Flood, with whom she coproduced the new album. But "White Chalk" seems lonelier and more desolate than any record Harvey has made. There's one exception: a lovely reverie where Harvey's voice is layered into a lush chorus and percussion rushes like a train going down the track. It's a song about freedom called "Silence."
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com.