Written In Chalk | Polly Harvey’s First Single Off Her 2007 Album is a Haunting Chamber Pop Masterpiece

The cover to the first single off Polly’s 7th studio album, White Chalk, “When Under Ether” released September 2007.

PJ Harvey is someone who never likes to repeat herself. Her prior album, Uh Huh Her, was a sonic departure from Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. It was much dirtier and raw. Her inspiration came from her 2003 three piece band tours. She wanted to make something raw, the polar opposite of her glossy and sparkly Stories album. Coming off of this record, Polly was back to the drawing board. Aways one to challenge herself both sonically and poetically, she wanted to try something she hadn’t done before. This album would be huge shift in her sound than anything she had done before. Polly would completely trade out her guitar for the piano. She would debut this sound before audiences during several shows in 2006. This was something she had begun doing back in 2003, debuting “Who the Fuck” and “Shame” during her three band shows before the release of Uh Huh Her. One of the tracks she would debut would be the first single off the album her newest record, White Chalk, “When Under Ether”. In the EPK on the single, Polly said she was so focused on not repeating herself that she made a list of things she would not include, such as any electric instruments. Not only would the instrumentation be completely different, but the vocals on the album would be a stark change. She sang in a high register, up in her falsetto. She would call this her church voice. In this EPK for the album, she said it was the voice she would use in church when she was child. This would created an extremely haunting and etherial nature to each song. “When Under Ether” puts this dark almost Victorian sound on full display. The track opens with Polly’s piano playing. The old upright she used to record this record is played with each note sustained making everything feel foggy and otherworldly. The percussion is muffled throughout the track. The only “electric” instrument played is keyboard providing these spacey notes to the track, adding to the trance like nature of the song. The lyrics explore a woman getting an abortion and her world around her as this is performed. It’s absolutely haunting. You feel like you’re in the mind of this woman as she goes through this, her mind warping as she goes under ether. “When under ether, The mind comes alive, But conscious of nothing, But the will to survive” and “Something’s inside me, Unborn and unblessed, Disappears in the ether, This world to the next…” provide a chilling honesty and realness to procedure happening to her. The music perfectly creating the atmosphere to this ether infused mind. It’s a gorgeously otherworldly track. Polly’s writing is a zenith here. Polly is one to create a full visual expression of her projects as well to reflect the tone of the work. You can see in her styling on the cover of the single and album, which gives this Victorian feel. It’s so fully immersive.

A still from the “When Under Ether” music video.

The single also contains one previously unreleased track, “Wait”. This track is a very old demo from 1988, during her time in Automatic Dlamini. It’s a peppy song played on the acoustic guitar with the accompaniment of bass and electric guitar. Polly sings about waiting for something to happen to her, but waiting so long she has forgotten was she was waiting for, “But I’ve waited so long, Forgotten what I was waiting for, Waited six long years or more, Another minute won’t make any difference, at all”. It’s a fun and bright little diddy. It definitely shows where she would go in making her first record, Dry. It also sonically works perfectly with this record in its more simplistic nature. The promo single also includes eight tracks of an interview Polly conducted on the making the record. It is broken up in parts: Direction & Goals, Piano, Lyrical Inspiration, Flood & John Parish, Where the Record Was Made, Related to Other Albums?, Theme, and Professional Development. I won’t dive too much into this here in case you want to get this single yourself or find this interview online to listen to. One of the nice things about the sleeve to the single is that it includes the questions asked to Polly during the interview. This was included so that a radio DJ could ask these questions and play Polly’s responses.

The cover to the album White Chalk from which the song “When Under Ether” was taken.

I have to say that the sound was polarizing to me when I first heard it back in 2007. Going from the aggressive garage band tone of Uh Huh Her to the etherial, dark, and otherworldly White Chalk. This album has greatly grown on me to be one of my favorites. Polly’s writing on it is fantastic. “When Under Ether” is a beautiful piece of music. I highly recommend giving it a listen. It’s such a short single, each song around the two to two and a half minute mark, that I have to recommend giving both tracks a listen.

My overall rating: 9 out of 10 etherial listens…



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