By 2007, PJ Harvey had released six studio albums, which ran the gamut in style from explosive blues-punk to near-industrial electronica to soulful pop rock. To the surprise of all (and dismay of many), her seventh album, White Chalk, marked a dramatic departure from all that. Gone were the buzz-saw guitars and the androgynously low vocals, replaced by spare, music-box pianos and a girlish falsetto. The cover art featured Harvey seated in front of a bruise-colored wall, dressed in an old-fashioned white dress like some somber Victorian ghost, and the music matched it: deceptively simple, subtly frightening.
The first single, “When Under Ether,” takes its title from East Coker, the second poem in the Four Quartets series by another double-initialed writer: T. S. Eliot. East Coker is the name of a village just south of Harvey’s native Yeovil, England, and Eliot uses that village, a place where “Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, / Are removed, destroyed, restored,” as the departure point for a relentless dissection of spiritual and philosophical paradox.
“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God,” reads the relevant passage, “As…when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing.”
In Harvey’s hands, the line is altered to suit the needs of a rhyming song in 4/4 time: “When under ether, the mind comes alive / But conscious of nothing but the will to survive.” Over uncomplicated piano chords—Harvey had only just learned to play the instrument—the lyrics describe a woman who is, to quote another Eliot poem, etherized upon a table. (Apparently the man couldn’t resist the symbolic allure of a surgical anesthetic that both numbed you and made you feel bliss.)
In college, I spent a semester abroad at Oxford studying the poetry of dear old Thomas Stearns Eliot. Every week, I walked from my dorm on the High Street down cobblestone roads to my tutor’s house, where I would turn in a paper I had just written and he would read it on the spot, interrogating each of my ideas line by line. When we got to East Coker, I pointed out Harvey’s quotation of it, and after looking it up on YouTube, he reported back that he didn’t approve of her using Eliot’s words to describe the experience of, “Oh, I’m lying on a bed and I’ve taken drugs.”
Even though he was a brilliant Oxford professor who knew more than I could ever hope to know about poetry, clearly he just wasn’t listening hard enough to the lyrics, because they describe something oceans away from recreational drug use (though probably not one Eliot would have approved of either). Yes, the song’s narrator is watching the room squirm from the hallucinatory effects of ether, but she’s also naked from the waist down, and at the end, something “unborn and unblessed” inside her “disappears in the ether.”
As journalist John Harris puts it, “I’ve just not heard anyone evoke the termination of a pregnancy as bluntly as that song does.”
Of course, when Harris brought it up to Harvey while interviewing her for the Guardian, she deployed one of her “trademark evasions”: “That’s obviously what you hear, but for me it’s not actually tied to anything specific, like an abortion…They’re songs. They inhabit themselves, really.”
Self-inhabitation aside, it’s hard not to read the words as being about abortion—or at least some sort of “twilight-sleep birth” à la Betty Draper—during which a woman feels completely alienated from her body, her emotions, and her unborn child. “The woman beside” the singer who “is holding [her] hand” and “smiles so kind” is even reminiscent of Lucille, the clinic attendant in Ani DiFranco’s definitely-about-abortion “Lost Woman Song.”
Despite the apparent trauma of the situation (if the anesthetic is ether, the procedure is probably taking place during a time when society treated women even worse than it does now), the narrator “looks up at the ceiling, feeling happiness.” It’s the drugs talking, sure, but it’s also perhaps some perplexing joy in the distance she feels from what’s going on, an emotional numbness so different from the anguish expected of her that it becomes its own emotion. With that kind of exploration of paradox, maybe Eliot would have given Harvey the thumbs up after all.