White Chalk (Island)
Reviewed by Audra Schroeder, Fri., Oct. 26, 2007
P.J. HarveyWhite Chalk (Island)
She peers from the cover, eyes blank, dressed in white, her face slightly out of focus. Polly Jean Harvey's never played it safe, and it's apparent from the artwork that her eighth album is the furthest she's drifted from her lipstick-smeared past. The English songstress has shaken off 2004's iffy Uh Huh Her and turned to the piano for Chalk, an instrument she'd never played before. It colors these 11 songs perfectly. They're still about the classic Harvey tropes of repression and longing, but Chalk's fixated on death and madness, at times feeling claustrophobic in its emptiness. Starting with "Grow Grow Grow," Harvey's restless, howling about the "twisted oak grove" over a Victorian churn, while on "Broken Harp," she makes one sound wobbly and backwoods. On the eerie "When Under Ether," she sighs, "Something's inside me, unborn and unblessed." Harvey's forked tongue makes desire seem equally unnatural and insatiable, and midway through Chalk she chants, "I freed myself" on gorgeous standout "Silence," giving way to a chorus of her voices, an ambient piano line her only confidante. By closer "The Mountain," she unleashes the scream she's been holding in the whole time, and it feels like an exorcism. At 33 minutes, P.J.'s haunt is short-lived but affecting long after.