From blues punk to Brechtian chanteuse, FM-friendly femme- rocker to feral screecher: Polly Jean Harvey has been many things during her career. All the same, “White Chalk” is a real curveball.
On Harvey’s eighth album, she lays the rock persona to rest, exchanging her electric guitar for piano — an instrument that she can barely play. What could have been a disaster turns out to be one of her finest releases to date. Clocking in at just over half an hour, it feels slight on first listen, but repeat plays reveal a work of dark beauty. This is pure headphone music, intimate to the point of being claustrophobic.
The songs come shrouded in ambient noise, vocals sometimes barely more than a whisper. “The Devil” sets the tone, Harvey’s voice pitched uncomfortably high over an uneven piano lurch: “As soon as I’m left alone/The devil wanders into my soul . . . ” Things don’t get any cheerier after that. The title track is a morbid hymn to the Dorset countryside of her youth (“White chalk hills will rot my bones”), while “To Talk To You” addresses her dead grandmother — a moment that would have been cringe- inducing in the hands of a lesser artist, but is utterly spine-tingling here.