Dear Darkness
PJ Harvey's Haunting, Wondrous White Chalk

I’m trying to decide what to pay for the new Radiohead album.

For those of you who somehow missed the onslaught of press regarding Britain’s favorite sons this week, here’s the rundown. Radiohead has finished their seventh album, called In Rainbows. What they don’t have, at the moment, is a contract with a record label – their long-running association with EMI expired after 2003’s Hail to the Thief. But rather than sign up with another label, they’ve decided to give the music industry a kick in the bollocks.

The 10-song In Rainbows will be available to download starting Wednesday from their website. It’s the first time a band of Radiohead’s stature has decided to digitally self-distribute a new record, and that alone would send shockwaves through the corporate music landscape, but they’ve gone one better: the price for downloading In Rainbows is whatever you want to pay.

Seriously. The price field on the order form is blank, and you can fill in nothing, or a penny, or a million dollars. Whatever you think the record’s worth. If you click on the question mark next to the price field, you get a message that reads, “It’s up to you.” Click on the question mark next to that, and you get a second message: “No really, it’s up to you.”

I know I haven’t had a kind word to say about Radiohead yet this century, but this is an incredible idea. Below-the-radar artists like Jane Siberry (who now calls herself Issa, for some reason) have been working on the variable pricing method for years now, but Radiohead’s worldwide fame and sharp critical divide make this a whole new ballgame. This way, the band gets to see just what their fans will pay for new work – surely some will swipe it for nothing, but I’m sure just as many will pay what they think is a fair price.

Of course, this is also a sweeping broadside in the war between my beloved CDs and downloads. In Rainbows is available in a physical format, but it’s so extravagant and expensive that it looks like rigging the bet – the “discbox,” as they call it, contains the album on CD, a bonus disc with eight other songs, both of those collections on vinyl records, and a hardcover book, all wrapped up in a massive slipcase for $81, plus shipping. If the band had made the album available in a standard CD format, with a standard price, alongside the variable price download, that would have been an interesting comparison. But only the hardcore (and the rich) will buy the discbox.

I’m neither of those, although if you’d asked me in 1998, I would have gladly shelled out for the big package. The thing is, everyone’s talking about the format of this record, and no one’s talking about the music that will be on it, which I think is probably the way Radiohead wants it. Since Kid A in 1999, Thom Yorke and company have been tunneling up their own asses, treading the same formless, song-less ground, and what I’ve heard of In Rainbows is no different. (In fact, if you go to NME’s site, you can hear live recordings of nearly every song on the new album. I hated just about all of them. Is this really the same band that made OK Computer? Really?)

Still, I want to hear the finished product, and I’ll most likely buy the standard CD release, for which the band is currently negotiating terms. As much as this variable pricing download thing is an assault on the way I like to buy music, I want to be part of the experiment. Given my distaste for just about everything the band has done since 1999, I am tempted to pay nothing. I’m sure many have done the same thing. But I know that’s not fair, and I want a say in setting a reasonable price for what even I can see is the future of music distribution.

So I’m thinking that $10 should be about right. It costs less to make music available this way, I know, but I’m not thinking about Radiohead here, I’m thinking about the thousands of other bands that will be looking to this grand experiment as a sign of what people are willing to pay to download new music. This also brings up an interesting conundrum: if the download is available this year, and the CD doesn’t hit shops until next year, is the album eligible for the 2007 top 10 list, or the 2008 one? (Luckily, it’s Radiohead, so this shouldn’t even be a concern.)

Anyway, I’ll let you know what I decide, and have my review of In Rainbows here next week.

* * * * *

I’ve been doing a top 10 list for so many years now that I just know when I’ve heard the number one record. It’s an indefinable, intangible thing – more of a feeling than anything else. I heard Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, and I just knew. I heard Joanna Newsom’s Ys, and I just knew.

I’m starting to get that feeling about PJ Harvey’s new one, White Chalk, though I’m not quite sure why. If you were to go on what I say I like, then this album shouldn’t be anywhere near the top – it’s not poppy, it has no catchy melodies, its production is odd and off-kilter, and it’s a barely-eligible 33 minutes long. But I can’t stop listening to it. White Chalk is nothing short of 2007’s most compelling and unsettling album thus far, an amazing feat of fearlessness that gets under your skin like little else out there.

Polly Jean Harvey’s career has been marked by sweeping change, from the raw guitar bursts of her first few albums (Dry, Rid of Me) to the more sinister To Bring You My Love, to the extraordinary pop of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. But she’s never done anything like this. For White Chalk, she ditched everything that sounds like PJ Harvey, setting aside the six-string for a piano, and singing everything in a high-pitched voice that sounds octaves out of her comfortable range. The fact that Harvey can’t really play the piano only adds to the fragility of this record – more accomplished playing would ruin the whole thing.

The result is, frankly, otherworldly. It sounds like cobbled-together radio transmissions from a planet where music evolved in completely different ways than it did here. But once you get past its ghostly exterior, it is uncommonly beautiful, much like the spectral cover photo. It’s also an album that will not leave you alone. One listen through will leave you unnerved and shaken, but you’ll want to listen again. This is something that goes beyond my usual concerns about song structure and melody, and heads straight for the emotional center of things – I didn’t even try to deconstruct these songs until my third time through the album.

Surprisingly, the songs themselves are simple things, tiny sketches given grand shape by the shivery production. Opener “The Devil” is haunting, its refrain of “come here at once” both comforting and unhinged. Throughout, Harvey pounds the piano, giving the songs basic shapes, but nothing more – they sound like they could float off and discorporate at any time. She layers her voice atop these fragile pianos and acoustic guitars like a choir of ghosts, often allowing one vocal line to fight against the others. Her impossibly high lead vocal on “To Talk to You” sounds like she can barely keep it together, which only adds to the atmosphere.

The subject matter is just as unsettling as the music. This album is about brokenness, about unwanted lives and loves. “Silence” tells the tale: “I freed myself from my family, I freed myself from work, I freed myself… and remained alone.” “When Under Ether” is simultaneously the most accessible and most horrifying thing here, a first-person account of a woman having an abortion. That’s the only song here that makes any reference to modern times – otherwise, this is a record without an era, one that could have been written 100 years ago, or yesterday.

You may think that an album consisting of little more than piano and voice would be peaceful and relaxing, but you’d be wrong. This album is almost unbearably tense, until the final 30 seconds. “The Mountain” starts like most of the other songs here, a simple piano line and that nearly whispered voice, but it concludes with a series of blood-curdling, orgasmic screams (melodic screams, mind you, in key), that sound like our narrator finally achieving catharsis. Naturally, the record abruptly ends two seconds later, giving you no time to join in that moment of release.

White Chalk is the kind of album that makes it nearly impossible to just go on with your day after listening to it. It weaves a skin-crawling spell, and cocoons you in it – you’ll be glad that this album is only 33 minutes long, because much longer would feel like suffocation. But the very weaving of that spell is a tremendous achievement – music that can make you feel anything is rare enough, but music that can make you feel this unstable, this unsafe, this unsure of the ground beneath your feet is akin to magic.

White Chalk is, in its own way, a masterpiece. Some will see it as just a fascinating diversion for PJ Harvey, but it captures something inexplicable, something without form or definition, something that goes beyond notes on a page, or sound from a speaker. This is an amazing album, and while it may not make it to number one, I can’t stop spinning it, and succumbing to its ghastly, ghostly charms.

* * * * *

And now, The Three Doctors.

There are some fans who have this bizarre notion of Doctor Who as a serious science-fiction drama. To be fair, occasionally it does try to spin tales with weight to them, like this year’s superb “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood.” But above all, this show is supposed to be fun, and my favorite stories are the ones that realize how much fun it can be.

The Aztecs, for example, is a romp, a morality play that keeps things light and funny. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor was always poking fun – witness the scene in The Invasion where, after the UNIT troops chase the Cybermen down the street past the Doctor, Isobel begins snapping pictures of him, and he fixes his hair and poses. Doctor Who is, at its heart, an adventure serial, the kind you used to be able to see for a dime at the theaters on the weekends, and too much gravitas just stretches the concept, never mind the budget.

Which may be why I love The Three Doctors so much, especially since many others seem to hate it. This story, which began airing in 1972, is the first multi-Doctor tale – the Time Lords are under attack, and for some reason not fully explained, their only hope of survival is to bring the Doctor’s three incarnations together. So we get Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell sharing a screen for the first and, sadly, only time.

This could have been boring – if Doctor Who were a straight sci-fi drama, no doubt the three incarnations would have seen the looming threat and immediately decided to work together for the common good. Thank God that isn’t what happens here. It’s an essential part of the Doctor’s personality that he’s always the smartest person in the room, so of course his various incarnations can’t get along – they’re always trying to one-up each other. And it’s hysterical. Patrick Troughton is a comic genius, of course, but this is one of the few opportunities Jon Pertwee has to show how damn funny he is, too, and the pair simply crackles on screen together.

William Hartnell, the original Doctor, was supposed to have a bigger part in this story, but sadly, his health was in such poor shape that all he could do was sit and read lines. The writers came up with a clever solution – the first Doc gets trapped in a time eddy, but can communicate with the others through the Tardis scanner. Unfortunately, this means that Hartnell’s last performance as the Doctor is confined to a few moments on a TV monitor. He’s excellent anyway, famously dismissing Docs two and three: “So, you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown!”

The story is delightfully silly. It introduces Omega (pronounced OH-meh-gah, for no good reason), the Time Lord who discovered time travel. Omega is stuck in a black hole, but he’s learned to harness the power therein to take his revenge on the Time Lords. This revenge is wonderfully ill-defined, and it seems to involve snaring the Doctor with a special effect that looks like someone drew on the frame with crayon, and attacking UNIT with walking hunks of Jell-O called Gellguards. These are the stupidest monsters I’ve yet seen in Doctor Who, and as such, they’re awesome to behold.

But the real story is the interaction between the Docs and the rest of the cast. This is a UNIT story, so we get Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, and this may well be his finest performance. He plays the Brig as a stubborn empiricist, and the scene where he refuses to believe that UNIT headquarters has been transported into the black hole is laugh-out-loud funny. He’s a great foil for both Troughton and Pertwee, and Courtney plays the straight man to both Doctors brilliantly.

The Three Doctors was the kickoff to Doctor Who’s monumental 10th season, and serves as a warm look back at the show’s history. The plot of the story also finds the Doctor regaining the use of his Tardis, freeing him up to travel in time and space again. Two further stories from the 10th season are out on DVD, and I’ll talk about those next week. But I highly recommend The Three Doctors – it’s exactly what Doctor Who should be, to me, and watching it was the most fun I’ve had since I started this silly obsession.

The Three Doctors does one other thing that I wanted to mention, though – it serves as a final goodbye to William Hartnell. The immortal first Doctor died shortly after filming his part in the story, and even though I’ve only recently gotten to know his work on this show, it was touching to get one last visit with him. And the writers treat him perfectly here – his Doctor is the classy one, sighing heavily over the argumentative and childish natures of his other selves. He’s the Doc the other Docs look up to, and as the originator of the role, that’s a fine, final tribute to Hartnell and his work.

Next week, the last two Pertwees on DVD: Carnival of Monsters and The Green Death. I’ve just received Robot, the first Tom Baker story, and I’m anxious to dive into episodes I can remember watching when I was a kid. More to come, of course.

See you in line Tuesday morning.