PJ Harvey White Chalk

[Island; 2007]

Styles: piano murder ballads
Others: Nico, Carla Bozulich

Polly Jean Harvey has never been one to hide her mood. From just a glance at how she's depicted on her album covers, it's easy to assume which Polly to expect. That sheer serpentine Polly on the cover of Rid of Me suggests the whip-sharp edge that she rocked on that early album, and her uptown girl style on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is unfortunately appropriate for that one too. So, when you see the spooky elegance of White Chalk's cover, you'd be right to expect the album's sound to follow a similar aesthetic.

Compared to PJ Harvey's past works, the most instrumentally foreign characteristic of White Chalk is the stark piano at the center of these songs. Polly has always done well to play outside her comfort zone, and in doing so on this album, she crafts a reminder more effective than her return-to-form attempt on Uh Huh Her. Playing the piano is clearly not her first language, and that tinge of discomfort as she struggles to find the right notes is consistent with the vulnerability present at much of her music's core. However, that's not to say that these songs sound labored. They come naturally and with craft, just not automatically.

While that fragility on Polly's best albums past has been backed up and built up with a hard edge and snarl, now it's mostly a well-placed whisper, which is partly where White Chalk lives up to that aforementioned spookiness. More tactilely, it's the often eerie timbre of the piano on these recordings, like the relic of a haunted parlor, dust and cracks intact. And her lyrical themes are more chilling to match -- rather than jilted lover's vulnerable loneliness, this time it's, "Mommy's in the doorway trying to leave/ Nobody's listening." With no hope of redemption as the album draws to a close, alienation becomes betrayal, the piano disintegrates, and her vocals crescendo in a startling wail.

1. The Devil
2. Dear Darkness
3. Grow Grow Grom
4. When Under Ether
5. White Chalk
6. Broken Harp
7. Silence
8. To Talk to You
9. The Piano
10. Before Departure
11. The Mountain

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