PJ Harvey’s last full-length, 2004’s Uh Huh Her, was arguably the worst of her career, a slow, murky album that mostly seemed far too tentative and out of focus. (To be fair, though, almost anything after 2000’s gleaming Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea—a brassy, chiming album that whirled with the giddiness of being in love—would have paled in comparison.)
Harvey’s latest disc, White Chalk, sounds just as tentative, but, as if proving that context means everything, the 11 songs collectively are some of her most meaningful, heart-wrenching work. Credit this to Chalk’s spare, ghostly piano—an instrument Harvey reportedly learned for this album—whose simplistic twinkles and melancholic melodies are deceptively devastating. Echoes of Björk (the a cappella “Broken Harp” feels like a Vespertine B-side), Nick Cave (chilly atmospheres and dirge tempos) and kindred soul Tori Amos (the unbearably downtrodden “Dear Darkness” is Under the Pink-esque) abound, although Chalk’s most intriguing trait is Harvey’s cooing high-register vocals.
In fact, it’s rather unsettling to hear how feeble her voice sounds, that the commanding edge of her guitar-hero days is absent; it’s as if Harvey were singing from beyond the grave. But this eerie device— and Chalk itself—still overflows with the type of beauty we’ve come to expect from Polly Jean: unorthodox and striking.