PJ Harvey's latest album is a rather dramatic departure from her more recent work. A minor-key piano heavy affair; Harvey uses her voice to great effect to create the somber mood of the album. Gone is the throaty growl of her early work, replaced by a ghostly timber that is startling to hear at first but ultimately works remarkably well. It is a testament to PJ Harvey's versatility as an artist that she can execute such a dramatic transformation. Her choice of delivery fits the theme of the music perfectly for ultimately this is an album about loneliness. Not the quiescent solitude of one who chooses to be apart mind you, but the bitter regret of one who has lost, who has been betrayed. She has explored these themes before but never has PJ Harvey's choice of delivery given this particular subject matter such potency.
The opening track "The Devil" along with it's sister track "Silence" underpin the major themes of the album. Both deal with the pain of lost love, they describe the pangs of need that lead one to a shared rendezvous in the vain hope that what is lost will be waiting there. This powerful metaphor runs throughout the work and we are like moths drawn to the light of her revelatory confessions. At different points the lyrics mention nakedness, in the literal sense, but this is only a metaphor for the raw emotional state of Harvey's tragic heroine. To be sure, this is an emotional excision; the feelings of loss, betrayal and blind hope all torn from her breast and laid bare before us.
Between the esoteric instruments (Optigan, broken harp, mellotron and mini-moog) and the antiquated language (ether gets prominent mention) White Chalk feels like a Victorian elegy for a lover lost in some tragic Poe short story. The raw sensuality of Harvey's work, often far more overt, here slowly builds to a roiling boil over the course of the eleven tracks until the dramatic climax on the album's devastating closer, "The Mountain". Repetition is used very effectively to establish a mood early and maintain it throughout the album making it feel more like stanzas of a single Sapphic poem than discrete tracks. Like much of PJ Harvey's other work, White Chalk took multiple listens to scratch the surface and reveal the deeper beauties hidden within but she makes the scratching hurt so right that you can't help yourself.