Rural Southwest England is where Polly Jean Harvey is originally from and it is where she has returned to after living abroad for several years. Her new album, White Chalk, is a stripped down, piano based recording that reflects the pastoral and remote setting where she once again resides. It is also the saddest thing that she has ever recorded. The songs are as bare as the chalkboard that the title suggests and her vocals lack much of their characteristic angst, howl and swagger. What’s more, they rarely gain any more volume than a low defeated whimper. However, Harvey has once again managed to cover ground that is unlike anything that she has previously done and her album, although at times painfully melancholy, is at the same time quite beautiful.
Almost all of the songs, with only a few exceptions, are performed on piano. Additionally, the arrangements on the album are kept at an absolute minimum. Moving back to England also gave her the opportunity to work with long time friend and collaborator John Parish once again, a multi-instrumentalist, who is incredibly talented. Other notable appearances are the Magic Band’s Eric Drew Feldman and the Dirty Three’s Jim White on drums and percussion.
White Chalk opens with an emerald of a song called “The Devil.” Simple piano chords and uniform drums chug along as Polly’s vocals are almost whispered until she explodes in the chorus with what turns out to be the sharpest vocal on the whole record, with the lines “Come/Come/Come at once/Come on a night with no moon, after which she reverts back to a quiet singing level and closes the song with the line, “What formerly cheered me now seems insignificant.” Next comes “Dear Darkness,” where the listener suddenly realizes that this is not just a different musical platform for Harvey, but an appropriate medium for what appears to be some serious depression. The song is as soft as a lullaby, but it carries with it a theme of abject misery. In fact, the very sound of her voice sounds as though it was recorded while tears were being choked back in her throat.
There is some familiar Harvey wailing in “Grow Grow Grow” that sounds similar in style to something off of Rid of Me or To Bring You My Love. In this track she sounds like she is struggling with day to day existence. Harvey says “Teach me mummy how to grow, how to catch someone’s fancy/Underneath the twisted oak grove.” From the written lyrics, Harvey comes across as being lovesick, but the mood of the album delves much deeper than that. The single, “When Under Ether,” is a fantastic track too. In addition to piano, it features some rather muffled percussion that sounds like feet tapping on a cardboard box or perhaps carpet.
The title track is the first one on the record that features guitar and it is a gently strummed acoustic. There are also banjo and percussion as accompaniment to the lonely lyrics, which include lines such as “I know these chalk hills will rot my bones.” The song is about returning to Dorset, the town where she grew up. She also mentions an unborn child that she once carried with her. If this allusion is true, maybe the somber mood of the album can be further explained. “Broken Harp” follows and, as the liner notes reference, it is performed on a broken harp. “Please don’t reproach me for how empty my life has become” is how the song opens and the eerie line “Can you forgive me” is so full of heartache that it is almost difficult to ponder how Harvey has sunk to such a state of hopelessness since her last album.
“Silence” sees a return to piano along with some ever so soft, but rapid percussion. It is one of the best songs on the album. It has a lovely, bare melody that is moving in itself and the vocals are delivered with more confidence. “The Piano” is another album highlight where Harvey doesn’t come across as being devastatingly despondent, although she still sounds far from content. The lyrics are dark and violent, reflecting either homicide or rejection. The song is also one of the few to feature a full drum kit, not just percussive elements.
This is a morose, melancholy and gorgeous record. The songs flow together in harmony. The lyrics and vocal delivery are full of loss, longing and abandonment, but it seems like a step forward for Harvey. White Chalk may take a few listens to grow, but it gets better all of the time. There are certain to be many people who will renounce it for being too miserable, for not being a rock record and perhaps foremost, for not featuring any electric rock guitar, but those types might not care much for PJ Harvey in the first place. It will be interesting to see what she does next.