In 1973 Michael Lesy published Wisconsin Death Trip, an intoxicating collection of images shot by Charles Van Schaick — the town photographer of Black River Falls, Wisconsin — around the turn of the last century. Framed by news items illuminating the pictures, the volume is a grim history of madness, murder, suicide, smallpox, poverty, and babies in coffins. But for that particular time and place, these were also the facts of life, which helps explain the book’s disturbing beauty.
I’ve no clue if Polly Jean Harvey has ever seen Wisconsin Death Trip. But her music has always held a similar allure, and never more so than on her eighth solo album, whose cover art resembles a Van Schaick portrait: the singer in a bone-colored Victorian-style dress, gaze steady, mouth expressionless, unmanicured hands folded in her lap. Her stories also recall Lesy’s: “Hit her with a hammer / Teeth smashed in / Red tongue’s twitching,” she sings on “The Piano,” a shimmering love song (!) whose tortured chorus simply repeats “Oh God, I miss you” over and over again.
Now, romantic desire’s dark and twisted side is Harvey’s main creative turf, even when said love seems like a positive thing — see 2000’s excellent Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The palette here, however, is new. The brash electric guitar, once her signature and sword, is gone; bass lines are few. The main instrument is piano, mostly a humble upright. Harvey adds zither, harmonica, and harp; longtime collaborators John Parish and Eric Drew Feldman, plus atmospheric percussionist Jim White (of Aussie post-rockers Dirty Three), come with gut-string guitars, banjos, wire-brush drumming, and — just to fuck with the folkie template — a few washes of Mellotron. Her vocals are downright pretty, sounding more like those of a traditional English singer than the raging punk Medusa of old.
All this may bum out certain fans. But there’s a coiled power here equal to Harvey’s more muscular stuff. The understated, intense modern-ancient balladry — an approach her buddy Will Oldham often employs — makes huffing ether (“When Under Ether”) or being entered by evil (“The Devil”) feel vividly au courant. It’s emotional history made palpable.
White Chalk, whose title conjures both the chalk cliffs of Dover and the tracings around corpses on pavement, is short, just 33 minutes. It pulls you under quickly, and you emerge a little queasy. The parting shot, capping “The Mountain,” is a devastating scream that seems to be the culmination of all the album’s gorgeous creepiness. It also feels distant, as if the record’s musical séance is fading, like a radio signal between towns, voices receding back to 19th-century Wisconsin, or wherever misery made — makes — its home.