No closer to answering the question she posed on 1998’s Is This Desire?, Polly Jean Harvey has watched it shed its rhetorical drag and assume declarative force. Although 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and 2004’s Uh Huh Her implied that “This is desire,” her unkempt guitar ensured that she would break these promises. Now, White Chalk‘s foregrounding of piano is her most iconoclastic gesture yet, a spooky reclamation of singer-songwriter monomania. Think Joni circa For the Roses, without the instrumental embellishments signifying acknowledgment of the outside world, and playing to middling results.
If Tom Waits hadn’t already made the genre his own, we’d call Harvey’s newest compositions “murder ballads,” with the victim being Harvey herself. Imagine 11 variations on the piano part in To Bring You My Love‘s menacing “Teclo,” sung at the very top of the singer’s register. The tension between her singing and the confessional nature of Chalk‘s material makes for the most excruciating music of Harvey’s career, in every sense. In “When Under Ether,” she recasts herself as Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, growing mad in a quiet room, her mind consuming itself. She reaches out to her grandmother in “To Talk to You,” and to folk-rock tropes (banjo!) on the title track. They’re not the only songs to allude to an unborn child—whether metaphorically or literally, most tracks here are descendants of 1995’s “Down by the Water.” This is strong stuff, and while it’s churlish to suggest that these songs would sound even creepier with a full band, it’s not wrong either: Repulsion dragged after a while, too. As usual, the excellent mix—opaque but sunlit—helps; as usual, we eagerly await her next album.