The piano that PJ Harvey played during her solo show Monday at the Orpheum Theatre was adorned with homey things -- a family photo in a frame, some kind of plastic stuffed animal, holiday lights, a metronome. What rocker keeps time with a metronome? Harvey used it only once, as a kind of acoustic drum machine, on her new song "The Devil." But this art-rock queen of the meaningful scream is not given to empty gestures.
That little order-keeper belonged to the world Harvey animates on her just-released album, "White Chalk." So did her bone-white concert gown, scrawled over with song lyrics, and the piano itself, deconstructed to expose every hammer hitting every string as Harvey, new to the instrument, labored to play it correctly.
Monday's set list spanned every dynamic shift of the 37-year-old Englishwoman's 16-year career, from early tirades such as "Rid of Me" to her mid-career re-imaginings of myth and murder balladry. But Harvey always returned to the shy nightmares of "White Chalk." In them, she has found a new way to tell her old stories of yearning and repression, focusing not on rebellion or despair but on what happens when one struggles to thrive within the cage.
Harvey's spirit during this show, one of only two scheduled to celebrate "White Chalk" in the U.S. (the other was last week in New York), was hardly confined. She grinned and gently joked her way through the complicated program, alternately playing guitar, autoharp and an array of pedals, drum machines and synthesizers, moving around the equipment-filled stage like Miss Havisham in her mansion -- minus any desire for a groom.
Her piano playing was elemental -- not a shock, given that she'd only recently learned the instrument, and she kept her drum loops simple, pulling more thrills from her room-shaking multi-octave voice. Harvey can be awkward onstage, but she was notably relaxed as she turned band-based songs into solitary tours de force.
Her good mood diffused the tension of her songs, but playing solo also allowed Harvey to further extend the isolated mood of "White Chalk." This is Harvey's domestic album, one that will have every women's studies major thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and every film buff running out to rent Jane Campion's "The Piano." Its vintage patina, and its focus on women dealing with destinies they ache to escape, connects it to a long history of works on the subject of feminine containment, extending through the Brontes all the way back to fairy tales.
But "White Chalk" is also straight out of Harvey's book of obsessions. Monday, she played older favorites fueled by the outrage and rebellious drive of characters who refuse to keep still. The songs on "White Chalk" contain similar cries, but their protagonists don't break through their bonds. Through them, Harvey explores the subtleties of quiet and stasis, not sturm und drang.
The piping soprano Harvey uses on much of her new material is often buried in the mix on "White Chalk," but in concert, she turned it into a keen. Her magnificent growl, which drew cheers from the crowd whenever it surfaced on older songs, still packs its punch; but that "little" voice has its own stories to tell, and they, too, are harrowing.
The set list showed how the two Harveys connect. "Down by the Water," from 1995's "To Bring You My Love," is a murder ballad whose paranoia echoes the new album's title track. The abandoned swain in "My Beautiful Leah" counts off the months since he lost his love; in "The Mountain," a betrayed lass counts the trees in her orchard, dying one by one. Integrated into her whole body of work, the "White Chalk" songs don't feel minor. They have a fury of their own.
And that dress, the centerpiece of the new album's striking cover, where it appears pristine, not yet marked with the black ink of Harvey's scribbled words? It's a far cry from the slinky cat suits she's worn in the past, and even further from the tank tops and combat boots in which she began her career. But there's no better way to understand containment than trying to play rock 'n' roll in a long Victorian gown.
"I have to make so many adjustments to play this song," Harvey joked at one point, shifting her skirts to accommodate her guitar strumming. Harvey's always been fascinated with what's lost and gained by making adjustments. Now she's really brought those questions home.