The mainstream media often peddles Madonna as the Queen of reinvention. Well, if Madonna's the Queen, then PJ Harvey is the Empress, because with 'White Chalk', Harvey has just about conquered this sideshow.
But when you get right down, to the real substance of 'White Chalk', Polly Jean Harvey's eighth studio album, it is brimming with raw brilliance.
'The Devil' kicks off the album with a pounding piano soundtrack which features a newly styled PJ Harvey vocal, one that kicks the abrasive snarl to touch, while proffering what must be bordering on a whispered falsetto.
"Come, Come / Come Here at Once" she implores as the LP creeps into place. And it's at this point, with the mould set, Polly launches into this "new" direction. Eleven tracks, 34 minutes later, you're left dazzled as she somehow meanders between different moods, differing emotions, both subtly and assiduously.
Built around her newly acquired taste for piano-playing, the album is a story in itself, emotions stripped down to the core. Take the single 'When Under Ether' which is unusual in the sense that Harvey sings with the potent vocal we're most familiar with. "The ceiling is moving / Moving in time / Like a conveyor-belt / Above my eyes" as she laments at what's about to occur. "Something's inside me / Unborn and unblessed / Disappears in the ether". It's this despair that demands compassion, and requires the listener to detach themselves from the mundane. This is not an album for background dinner parties or for the faint-hearted. It demands deep respect.
'White Chalk' and 'Broken Harp' follow a similar path, with the two tracks imposing more questions than answers. Apparitions seemingly haunting the character as she exclaims there's "blood on my hands" on the title track of the LP, while 'Broken Harp' a capella, sees Harvey begging for forgiveness.
But the standout track 'The Piano' is still to come. A tale of contrition and despondent pain, she despairs over an absent lover: 'Nobody's listening / Oh God I Miss You', as Harvey uses the layered vocals to full, glorious effect. A roller-coaster two-and-a-half minutes that allow you to digest the pain so prevalent in the dark world that these songs exist.
Harvey has often said she writes her songs as someone else or about someone, so 'White Chalk' isn't to be taken literally. But within the album, she has somehow managed to create an ethereal world created through her poetic imagination. It will take you by the hand, and either haunt you for years to come or gasp in awe. And that is why we need the Empress, Polly Jean Harvey.