Review Summary: Piano replaces guitar, resignation replaces anger, and PJ Harvey comes up trumps.Around 13 years ago, a major British music magazine ran a joint feature on PJ Harvey, Bjork, and Tori Amos. These three women, let us not forget, were major figures in rock in the mid-90s, each with a disctinctive sound, each with almost unbroken critical acclaim. At the time, this article could quite easily have been seen as symptomatic of lazy journalism, or even sexism, but what makes it interesting now is the career trajectories of each of these women since the article was published.
Polly Jean Harvey has always been a bit of a rock & roll Sybil — manifesting alter egos from the howling blues banshee of 1993’s Rid of Me to the torchy seductress of 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. On the largely piano-based White Chalk, she retreats into an odd little-girl-lost persona, singing almost entirely in a tremulous higher key that strangles the most powerful instrument in her arsenal: that voice. True, it’s a woman’s prerogative to change — we just wish she had chosen a more expressive path.
If like me, you’ve always thought Polly Harvey worked best without the spit and polish a ‘good’ production job offers, the last decade or so must have felt a bit thin on the ground as per revelation from our lady. There are certainly identifiable moments on every album she has released since 1995 but since 4 Track Demos, Harvey’s ultimately felt better as an idea. Her relatively admirable example of how a pro-status artist should behave notwithstanding, albums such as Stories from the City… read as half-baked these days, some good songs swamped by star turns and the reassuring coddle of the jetsetter’s life.
She peers from the cover, eyes blank, dressed in white, her face slightly out of focus. Polly Jean Harvey's never played it safe, and it's apparent from the artwork that her eighth album is the furthest she's drifted from her lipstick-smeared past. The English songstress has shaken off 2004's iffy Uh Huh Her and turned to the piano for Chalk, an instrument she'd never played before.