Album Review: A Woman, A Man, Walked By by PJ Harvey & John Parish
Fairly Good, Based on 11 Critics
Observer Music Monthly - 80 Based on rating 4/5
One day, so the story goes, Thomas Hardy's wife told a visitor that her husband would be down soon but he was currently writing a poem about death. The friend expressed concern as to Hardy's mood. Oh no, she assured him, Thomas was in excellent spirits. Perhaps Polly Jean Harvey, a native of Hardy country, knows the story.
PJ Harvey's previous album with John Parish was 1998's Dance Hall at Louise Point, but the 12-year wait was worth it. Harvey's brutal doctrine - that nothing should sound like anything either of them has done before - has produced a thrilling, boundless work. The songs are riots of changing themes and multiple musical personalities. Black Hearted Love, in which Parish's granite riff fuels one of Harvey's best ever rockers, finds two lovers frolicking in the abyss, while Pointless, Passionless chillingly catalogues a stone-cold relationship.
Best of all, though, are A Woman a Man Walked By's furious -- and surprisingly hilarious -- moments, which leave conventional notions about sex and sexuality trampled in their wake. The first part of "A Woman a Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go" finds Harvey deriding and lusting after a "woman man" with "lily-livered little parts," switching between a guttural snarl and fey soprano as she tears him to pieces (the second, instrumental part is Parish's only solo credit on the album, a riot of pianos and twitchy percussion that's nearly as wound-up as what came before it). "Pig Will Not" is even rawer, mixing Rid of Me-like firepower with a wicked sense of humor and feral barking with lines like "true love is what we're doing now.
To illuminate the depth of his working relationship with PJ Harvey, John Parish recently said: “We consider everything we do musically a collaboration to some degree. ” That statement might surprise those who don’t pay attention to the credits on Harvey’s albums, but it only confirms that their partnership is stronger than the 12 years that have passed since their last co-billed release—1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point—would imply. Parish has worked with Harvey in capacities ranging from producer to touring band member since her masterful To Bring You My Love in 1995, so a second release with fully shared attribution at this point seems more a statement of intent than a simple distribution of credit.
For years, Polly Jean Harvey’s raw, defiantly female perspective has gone at hard topics with bracing emotional sandpaper. Here, she often just picks up a brick and smashes. Though A Woman a Man Walked By does have strong moments with longtime collaborator Parish, exercises in atonality like ”Pig Will Not” feel less womanly than regressively adolescent.
Polly Jean Harvey isn't exactly a restless creative spirit, given the consistency of her themes and the familiar emotional landscape of her songs. Nevertheless, she's been changing things up from the very beginning, starting with the shift from her near-perfect debut Dry to the bone-rattling game-changer Rid of Me and on through any other number of career zigs and zags, some more successful than others. Since disbanding her original trio, but especially since her breakout To Bring You My Love, Harvey has lost some of her intense focus, leading her to branch out to a tandem-billed collaboration in 1996 with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point, and continuing up through her harrowing hey-why-not-piano? album White Chalk.
Long-time PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish was in charge of all the music on this outing, leaving Harvey to concentrate purely on the vocals. This shapes the results less than you might think, since Parish is still writing for her idiosyncratic voice and Harvey is still, well, Harvey. [rssbreak] First the good news. The two of them sound like they're having loads of fun, creepy and dark as it may be.
It’s odd to look back on PJ Harvey’s Dry some 17 years after it was revealed to the world. A self-assured debut, released amid the Riot Grrl boom of the early 1990s and containing a sound she moved away from almost instantly. Harvey’s peers weren’t from that set; she found a welcome home amid the flourishing Sausage Machine scene in north London (think: Gallon Drunk, Stereolab, Th’ Faith Healers) whom she also briskly distanced herself from.
The most disturbing bit in PJ Harvey’s live DVD Please Leave Quietly comes not from the weapons grade quantities of excoriating devil-blues contained therein, but a scene near the end of the tour where the bleakest woman in rock gets well and truly tequila'd, mumbling incoherently to camera with a big, sleepy grin on her face. Okay, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect Polly Jean Harvey (the person) to spend her free time pining at the stars in a Dorset garret, but still, seeing her goof around was... weird.
On their first collaboration, 1996's Dance Hall at Louse Point, PJ Harvey wrote the lyrics, John Parish the music, and it felt like a respite from Harvey's heavy-duty mid-1990s releases. She returns from 2007's haunting White Chalk with the longtime producer/multi-instrumentalist for another roll in the hay, 10 songs he again wrote the music for and for which she provides narration. Guitar-driven opener "Black Hearted Love" recalls the polish of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, and it's one of Harvey's most accessible songs in years.