P.J. Harvey has never been good at standing still or looking backward. When she tries to duplicate a successful past sound, as on the underwhelming 2004 effort Uh Huh Her, her heart just doesn't seem in it. When she tries something new, however, there are few more exciting artists out there.
Harvey seems to know this, too. Her latest, White Chalk, dispenses with anything familiar from past albums, even elements familiar to Harvey herself. Structured around spare piano lines, White Chalk finds Harvey relying on an instrument she sounds like she's still learning how to play.
Still, it serves her well on 11 lovely, gloomy tracks that sound like nothing she has ever released before. Harvey has one of the most forceful voices around, but here she relies on her silk-thin upper register to create a delicate album that skates across despair without ever quite sinking into it. If anything, she revels in White Chalk's black mood, even saluting the emotions that produced it with "Dear Darkness." Elsewhere, she pays homage to her new instrument of choice with "The Piano." The track begins with some elliptical, Emily Dickinson-like piano imagery ("Hit her with a hammer / teeth smashed in") then ends in more familiar Harvey territory, with someone stuck in a room repeating "oh God, I miss you." It's a place she's been before, but it's never sounded quite like this.