he electric guitar is traditionally recognized as an extension of the phallus, but the idea of Polly Jean Harvey recording entirely without one sounds like an act of neutering all the same.
Ever since Rid of Me, of course, Harvey’s treated the six-string like a stealth weapon rather than a necessary appendage. Nonetheless, its well-timed bursts and sprays always seemed to help engorge her axe-less moments with similar combustible fervor, whether in the sometimes-throbbing beat-work of Is This Desire, the acoustic-and-keys self-possession of To Bring You My Love, or her two most recent, more readily rock-signifying albums.
Learning that PJ’s focusing on the piano this time around then isn’t necessarily cause for concern, until you actually listen to White Chalk and realize Harvey’s ivory-tinkling won’t be of the holly-rolling Tori-ish variety, nor will any amped-up geetars be showing up to light a fire under her ass as needed.
But we must come to terms with what we’ve been given here, and our gift is 34 minutes of archaic whispers and moanings from a woman who’s always had a knack for sounding so out of time she can make recent Dylan seem as ripped-from-the-headlines topical as your favorite mixtape rapper.
"Austere" and "archetypal" are the prevailing watchwords. Over the course of eleven songs of grim predestination, virtually no modernizing or even identifying signposts are allowed to disturb the terrain. The title track gives us a path, then tells us it was "cut 1500 years ago." You get the picture.
Bereft of detail then, we’re left with elemental feelings and facts of existence—none of which, of course, have ever been too foreign to PJ’s oft-essentialist purlieu. Desire ("Silence"), regret ("Broken Harp"), loss ("To Talk to You"), and mortality ("Before Departure") are all investigated with suitable verbal detachment and allusive mystery. Abortion, everyone’s second-favorite sensationalist could-it-be topic for parlor guessing games (after masturbation, naturally) is quite possibly implied on the title track as well as in "Broken Harp" ("something metal tearing my stomach out"), and certainly seems to be the subject of "When Under Ether" ("Something’s inside me / Unborn and unblessed / Disappears in the ether").
"When Under Ether" is also the album’s first single, surely a perverse and perfunctory designation springing from a record of such stark and intense alienation. Still, the melody does manage to insinuate through sheer haunted grace, and the remaining best of White Chalk follows suit, particularly the banjo-driven, echo-laden title track, the instrumentally self-explanatory "Broken Harp" and the truly terrifying "Grow Grow Grow." Vocally, that song features one of the few appearances of Harvey’s trademark long snake moan, but she finds other ways to get under the skin as well, blanketing "Silence" in a chillingly ironic refrain of its title and layering a moving falsetto over top of "Dear Darkness."
No 34-minute album should ever drag, but this one undoubtedly does begin to wane as Harvey’s melodic nuance falters while her narratives grow more ridiculously obtuse, bottoming out with the cringe-worthy cries of "nobody’s listening" in the childhood nightmare "The Piano." Perhaps fittingly, White Chalk concludes with "The Mountain," which offers Harvey’s leanest, least-existent melody of the entire record and ends with her wailing like some madwoman of antiquity over, you guessed it, a lone piano.
Don’t worry though, PJ. They’ll invent electric guitars someday.