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PJ Harvey White Chalk Review

Album. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

Polly Jean returns with a new piano-based direction. Lovely and disturbing in equal...

Chris Long 2007

As any long term fan of PJ Harvey will tell you, the one thing that you can always expect from Polly Jean is the unexpected, and yet, even taking that into account, few people would have predicted that for her eighth studio album, she’d base the whole thing on an instrument she’d never played before.

Having spent 15 years ripping us to shreds, sometimes aurally and sometimes emotionally, with her guitar, White Chalk reels around the piano, something she couldn’t play when she made her last album three years ago.

Thankfully, it doesn’t feel like the experiment it might appear to be. Produced by the same pair who took her through To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?, John Parish and Flood, it sits as a sister piece to both in its expansive sparseness and its lyrical desolation.

Polly’s newfound love of tinkling the ivories is not the only unexpected thing about the album. For the most part, she sings much higher than normal, making for a sound that veers between the beautifully nightmarish and the soporific, particularly on the fear-filled “The Piano”.
The result is an album that surprises, thrills and shocks. It is as if this album’s self-produced predecessor, Uh Huh Her, marked a definite turning point for Harvey and she has decided to strip away the music, strip away the stories and return to the artist who offered up such powerful blows as “C’Mon Billy”, “Man-Size” and even “Sheela-Na-Gig”.

That feeling of the loss of layers reaches its pinnacle with “Broken Harp”. Swirling round the most minimal of musical backings, the song swings on disappointment and disillusionment. Indeed, even with all her brutality before, she has never delivered a more distressingly honest moment than the opening lines; ‘Please don’t reproach me/for how empty my life has become’.

While other artists relax into their fame and fortune, Harvey continues to test both herself and her audience. Years ago, John Peel described PJ Harvey’s debut single as ‘admirable if not always enjoyable’. The same could be said of today’s Polly Jean and that, in itself, is worthy of praise.

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