If there's been a constant in Polly Jean Harvey's 15-year career it's that she seems uncomfortable in her own skin-- which may explain why she sheds it so often. Harvey has a penchant for self-correction, to an almost compulsive degree: After To Bring You My Love made her a marquee act, Harvey released the dark, more atmospheric Is This Desire? When her 2000 album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea accidentally captured the tenor of the times (its songs had an eerily prescient relationship to post-9/11 paranoia), Harvey responded with the stripped-down and studiously raw Uh Huh Her. In recent years, reports even swirled that Harvey was considering retiring, and in at least one regard she temporarily has: White Chalk-- Harvey's most radical self-correction to date-- finds her setting aside the guitar and the blues touches that marked past releases in favor of chamber-gloom, a ghostly piano her tool of choice.
In Uh Huh Her's liner notes, there's a scribbled note from Harvey which reads, "TOO NORMAL? TOO P J H?" On White Chalk, there might be more Polly Jean Harvey than we've ever heard before-- if not quite enough of what traditionally falls under the "PJ Harvey" moniker. One problem is that Harvey isn't nearly as creative a pianist as she is a guitarist. However, the instrument switch has forced her to alter the way she composes as well as the way she sings. From opener "The Devil" on down, she's singing almost exclusively near the top of her range, using the piano as much as for percussion as melody. There are very few distracting trills on "Dear Darkness" or "Grow Grow Grow", where every note rings with loneliness, and the simple repetitive pattern that gently drives "When Under Ether" drips with menace.
The rest of the album's instrumentation is equally spare and strictly old-fashioned, with such mood-setters as broken harp fleshing out (ahem) "Broken Harp"; when some (fake) brass enters the song, it's somber and subdued. Even the scant use of drums is largely intended to accent the songs. While there's probably more room than usual for Jim White, only "The Piano" finds him playing with any force.
Lyrically, White Chalk is oppressively bleak. Harvey's songs never seem as if they come easily; they instead sound like the product of much effort, rigor, and even some pain. Her music is so raw it's a far cry from fun, even when she's trying to be funny; when she commanded Robert De Niro to "sit on my face" in 1993's "Reeling", she made it sound part dare, part threat. But there are no chuckles to be had on White Chalk, which is dark and austere, the songs striking an uneasy balance between indulgence and confrontation.
Despite the presence of regular collaborators John Parish, Captain Beefheart alum Eric Drew Feldman, and producer Flood, White Chalk sounds as lonely and isolated as any album Harvey has made. There is a rich history of depressing British folk that Harvey taps into here, but without a hint of catharsis, much of White Chalk's miserablism just hangs in the air like a noose. On the right day, at the right time, the album's powerfully claustrophobic intimacy is more palatable; on the wrong day, at the wrong time, in the wrong frame of mind, White Chalk may be the longest half-hour in the world.
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