Sunday, September 27, 2009

#95. 'Something's inside me, unborn and unblessed'

PJ Harvey "When Under Ether"

Sparsity in music can go one of two equally interesting ways. There's the minimalism end of the spectrum where the space between notes is more important than the notes themselves, or there's just the idea that you don't need to dress a track up all that much to make it stand out. For the latter case just think about the acoustic version of any number of your favorite songs: robbed of the bells and whistles that define the "proper" version the song takes on a whole different context and makes for a more rewarding listen in a lot of cases by getting to the song beneath the song. PJ Harvey exploited this disparity as well as anyone with the release of 4-Track Demos after Rid of Me, which took the latter's songs out of the Albini-ized context and into more intimate environs to results that many (myself not included, though I appreciate 4 Track Demos nonetheless) feel suits them better. So when it came to pass that PJ Harvey was going to release an album that was as sparse as her previous outing, 2004's middling Uh Huh Her, was loud and busy my interest was considerably more piqued than if it were just noted as a new PJ Harvey album. Given its sparse nature I don't think anyone was under the illusion that White Chalk was gonna be a commercial revival for her, but choosing "When Under Ether" as the lead single took balls.

From a standpoint of properly representing its parent album it couldn't be more appropriate, as outside of some added keyboards on certain sections it's just PJ and her piano, but outside of that it's probably the least single-like track on the album. It's not just the subject matter, which I'll get to in a bit, but the whole composition of the song gives it the air of an album track. There's no real chorus or even a hooky instrumental passage to draw you in, just a simple repeated piano figure and a series of verses split up by Harvey drawing out the phrase 'human kindness' in a vaguely sinister manner - and that's as close to a chorus as you'll find. Nevertheless, the atmosphere the track creates is utterly intoxicating and that makes up for any perceived shortcomings of singlehood. The lone piano figure becomes rather hypnotic quite quickly, due mostly to the resonant production adding overtones upon overtones to the palette and imbuing every repetition of the figure with a whole world of other sounds.

Now figure in the subject matter, or at least the easiest interpretation. Harvey's pulled the 'not about any one thing card' on this one, but at first it seemed pretty clear to me that the song was written from the point of view of a girl undergoing an abortion. Between the connection the ether of the title to that particular procedure and lines like the 'unborn and unblessed' section I used in the title it seems pretty simple. Of course there's plenty of other things it could refer to, if there wasn't ambiguity to be parsed through I don't think it would appeal to me quite as much as it does, but I don't think it's too unfair to say that the vast majority of listeners will make a bee-line for the most literal of interpretations. Personally, I've come to see it as being about mental illness of some stripe, the use of drugs to curb an alternate personality or just a travelogue of a non-threatening acid trip. I can't say it's not about an abortion any more than I can say it's definitively about any of those things, and allowing it that sort of ambiguity makes the track come alive even more in my estimation. There's a purposeful vagueness to the lyrics, and that allows for such wide arrays of interpretation to those that choose to look beyond the obvious.

Combine that with the dreamlike atmosphere and each individual interpretation takes on even more depth. The key element of each interpretation is that there's a degree of haziness that comes out of them, and the atmosphere of the track enhances that aspect to a perfect degree. It's a great symbiosis between lyric and arrangement that elevates it over the other singles Harvey released this decade. This is a song you get lost in, and it accomplishes that goal in less than two and a half minutes no less.

Coming up tomorrow: The robots win out.

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