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.
Maybe it’s because she’s returned to Dorset, England but White Chalk is Harvey’s most significant turn since…oh, about 1993, when she was casting fire and brimstone in the post-Beefheart blues of Rid of Me. Notably, she’s significantly pared back her instrumental palette, trading guitar for piano and allowing her lesser facility with the latter instrument to guide her hands into composing some of her most simply affecting songs. Swathing the melodies with a gauzy haze of reverb, “When Under Ether” and “Grow Grow Grow” come closer to the medieval marshlands of Nico’s Desertshore than anything in Harvey’s corpus of work to date; “White Chalk” itself broadcasts from under an eiderdown, Jim White’s marching-band-on-downers drums framing the song’s elemental reminisce perfectly.
By keeping the pace and emotional tenor of the album in check, Harvey has resisted her more prolix urges, resulting in a suite of songs – and this collection deserve suite status more than any other, due to their internal consistency and shared conviction – more powerful for their restraint. Depending on how much faith you place in her artistry, this new turn from Polly could appear as another canny shape shift, a leap into left field pre-planned to keep people talking. But that doesn’t feel right – surely there are better ways of demanding attention on pop’s cluttered stage than self-consciously introverting?
Ultimately, White Chalk is all about squeezing things out of shape, consciously or no. By shocking her voice out of its usual register, Harvey enacts a strain on the songs that has them sitting outside of their skins: they’re all slightly ungainly, uncertain of quite how to present themselves. To me that’s a great compliment, and like other albums of similar temperament – the strung-out piano ballads on Big Star’s Third, Nico of course, maybe even the faded elegy of The Spinanes’ Strand – White Chalk shifts between comforting melancholy and supremely discomforting performativity with preternatural ease.