All woman

Leaving gender-bending rock behind, P J Harvey has produced an album of fragile beauty

I have a theory that music should, in certain circumstances, be made available on the NHS. For example, any teenage girl who fancies herself as a tortured soul should be given Dry and Rid of Me, P J Harvey's incendiary first two albums, on prescription. A few doses of "Happy and Bleeding" ("I'm happy and bleeding for you"), "Legs" ("Lick my legs and I'm on fire/Lick my legs and I'm desire") and "Dry" ("I'm sucking 'til I'm white/But you leave me dry") should be enough to make her realise she is, relatively speaking, pretty well balanced.

It is 14 years since the release of Rid of Me, which was accompanied by a memorable publicity campaign featuring an androgynous image of the naked, skinny artist. On the back of the album, another photograph showed her with rope burns around her neck. At the time, provocative female musicians were more common than they are now: Courtney Love and her band Hole were surfing the grunge wave, and groups such as L7, who pelted their audiences with used Tampaxes and stripped off their clothes live on the Friday-night "yoof" TV show The Word, led a movement that was - rather patronisingly - pigeonholed in the music press as Riot Grrrl.

Even in this context, Polly Jean Harvey stood out as an artist who was uniquely prepared to explore the very darkest and least palatable aspects of femininity. She wore black leather, or posed confrontationally nude on the cover of the NME; her guitar emitted strange squalls of feedback; her voice veered from a whisper to a screech to a deep groan. She sang about blood, hair, violently exploitative sex and cross-dressing. It should have been almost unlistenable but instead it was compulsive, strange, beautiful and somehow blackly humorous: on "M-Bike", from 4-Track Demos (1993) she raged against her lover's obsession with his wheels: "Night and day/Wind or shine/He looks at her shape/Not at mine/ I'm not complaining/. . . think what you like/ But I fucking hate/His motorbike."

Who knows whether such a challenging artist would get a record deal today, with the music industry in such a fearful, risk-averse state. Certainly, the 1990s burst of female feistiness was short-lived: Riot Grrrl soon died an unsurprising (and frankly welcome) death. Courtney Love has since had a breast enlargement and an ill- advised affair with Alan Partridge. With the notable exception of Beth Ditto, young women at the forefront of popular music today tend not to challenge norms of gender and sexuality in any serious way. The award for most subversive act committed by a female musician in the Noughties must go to Britney Spears, for shaving off her all-American blonde hair.

Harvey, too, has undergone a transformation, but she has done so with integrity. Her albums To Bring You My Love (1995), Is This Desire? (1998), Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) and Uh Huh Her (2004) have traced a gradual journey away from the angry alienation of adolescence and towards an adulthood that is equally painful, but more nuanced and accepting. Her latest release, White Chalk, is a calm and reflective record on which her electric guitar has been replaced by a piano.

It is shot through with fragments of the old brutality ("Hit with a hammer/Teeth smashed in", she sings on "The Piano"), but the prevailing atmosphere is one of fragile beauty. Harps and accordions provide a twinkling, jangly backdrop to Harvey's voice, which, often in falsetto, has an almost operatic polish. Instead of anger, there is sadness; instead of sexual obsession, there is - perhaps doomed, but still - love.

Recalling Nick Cave, with whom Harvey has collaborated, White Chalk creates Gothic and emotionally charged musical landscapes. The first track, "The Devil", is introduced with spiky harpsichord, Harvey singing into "a night with no moon". The title track evokes Dorset's white cliffs, but they have morphed from a reassuring symbol of home into sinister monsters that "rot my bones". On "When Under Ether", she finds relief in a drugged sleep. Elsewhere, she seems to be crooning to herself in a haunted castle, ghostly voices echoing through her jangling, slightly off-key piano. It is only on the last track, "The Mountain", that the music seems to soar out of the earthbound darkness and into a wide expanse of open sky. Its climax is the high point of the album, and the lyrics, like many of Harvey's, take on a biblical quality: "In my own heart, every tree is broken/The first tree will not blossom/The second will not grow/The third has fallen/Since you betrayed me so."

There is no doubt that the mature, piano- playing P J Harvey lacks the visceral impact of her ass-kicking predecessor. Neither, for all their melodiousness, does any of the tracks here stay seared in the memory quite like, say, "Sheela-Na-Gig" or "Down by the Water". Nevertheless, this is a cohesive and evocative album, testament to an artist who, above everything, has remained true to herself.

P J Harvey's "White Chalk" (Universal/Island) is released on 24 September

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown