The Polly Jean Harvey you hear on White Chalk is not the wild harpy you heard gnashing and wailing on "Sheela-Na-Gig", or the urbane punk stateswoman of 2000's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. No, this is another evolution in her singular career--one that sees electric guitar banished to the cobwebbed attic, tight cat-suit covered over by Victorian gown, and Polly's yearning vocals sounding strangely removed, like they're being broadcast from another, distant age. Piano is the primary instrument here, augmented by occasional, dusty sounding guitar or other, more esoteric stringed instruments--a sparse, limited musical canvas that places the emphasis on song and lyrics. And while initially, they seem foreboding and slow to open up, repeated spins reveal this to be a set of ghostly power and eerily timelessness. "Dear Darkness" is spacious and supremely measured, Harvey singing of words "tightening around the throat of the one I love", while the harp-accompanied "Grow Grow Grow" is impossibly highly-strung, its pain buttoned-up in constricting corsets and tight bows. Only on the closing "The Mountain" does she approach the cathartic anger of her previous work. But then, White Chalk is something else entirely--an icy English gothic that's powerful in its choked restraint. --Louis Pattison
Review by Heather Phares
The quiet ones are always the scariest. Polly Jean Harvey's appearance on the cover of White Chalk -- all wild black hair and ghostly white dress -- could replace the dictionary definition of eerie, and the album itself plays like a good ghost story. It's haunted by British folk, steeped in Gothic romance and horror, and almost impossible to get out of your head, despite (but really because of) how unsettling it becomes. White Chalk is Harvey's darkest album yet -- which, considering that she's sung about dismembering a lover and drowning her daughter, is saying something. It's also one of her most beautiful albums, inspired by the fragility and timelessness of chalk lines and her relative newness to the piano, which dominates White Chalk; it gives "Before Departure" funereal heft and "Grow Grow Grow" a witchy sparkle befitting its incantations. Most striking of all, however, is Harvey's voice: she sings most of White Chalk in a high, keening voice somewhere between a whisper and a whimper. She sounds like a wraith or a lost child, terrifyingly so on "The Mountain," where she breaks the tension with a spine-tingling shriek just before the album ends. This frail persona is almost unrecognizable as the woman who snarled about being a 50-foot queenie -- yet few artists challenge themselves to change their sound as much as she does, so paradoxically, it's a quintessentially PJ Harvey move. The album does indeed sound timeless, or at least, not modern. White Chalk took five months to record with Harvey's longtime collaborators Flood, John Parish, and Eric Drew Feldman, but these somber, cloistered songs sound like they could be performed in a parlor, or channeled via Ouija board. There is hardly any guitar (and certainly nothing as newfangled as electric guitar) besides the acoustic strumming on the beautifully chilly title track, which could pass for an especially gloomy traditional British folk song. Lyrics like "The Devil"'s "Come here at once! All my being is now in pining" could be written by one of the Brontë sisters. On a deeper level, White Chalk feels like a freshly unearthed relic because it runs so deep and dark. Harvey doesn't just capture isolation and anguish; she makes fear, regret, and loneliness into entities. In these beautiful and almost unbearably intimate songs, darkness is a friend, silence is an enemy, and a piano is a skeleton with broken teeth and twitching red tongues. "When Under Ether" offers a hallucinatory escape from some horrible reality -- quite possibly abortion, since unwanted children are some of the many broken family ties that haunt the album -- and this is White Chalk's single. What makes the album even more intriguing is that it doesn't really have much in common with the work of Harvey's contemporaries (although Joanna Newsom's Ys and Scott Walker's The Drift come to mind, mostly for their artistic fearlessness) or even her own catalog. It rivals Dance Hall at Louse Point for its willingness to challenge listeners, but it's far removed from Uh Huh Her, which was arguably more listenable but a lot less remarkable. In fact, this may be Harvey's most undiluted album yet. When she's at the peak of her powers, as she is on this frightening yet fearless album, the world she creates is impossible to forget, or shake off easily. White Chalk can make you shiver on a sunny day.
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.
-Joshua Klein, September 24, 2007