You would have to cast your mind back quite a few years for the last time (and only time) that PJ Harvey & John Parish released an album together. Since 1996 and Dance Hall at Louse Point, neither artist has wandered too far from each other’s company with Parish most recently co-producing Harvey’s White Chalk album. Given their close working relationship, it seems incredible to think this repeat collaboration hasn’t happened sooner, but despite the near 13 year gap, A Woman A Man Walked By sounds and feels like no time has passed at all.
Resuming the same work ethic that bore Dance Hall.., all tracks began as pieces of nearly completed music by Parish and then sent on to Harvey to pen lyrics and add her unique vocal touch. The departure in style that lead to Harvey’s White Chalk lends some influence on certain tracks on A Woman A Man, in particular the ukulele and piano of “The Soldier” and the folk tinged banjo on “16, 15, 14”. Despite the enticing title suggesting a possible concurrent theme, the tracks here form no close bond.
Placed at the start, “Black Hearted Love” is the album’s most immediate and most obvious Harvey-like track. With its big guitar riff and straight-up rock stomp, it seems more at home on Harvey’s Uh Huh Huh album of 2005 than here. The rest of A Woman A Man.., like on Louse Point… isn’t nearly as easy to pin down. Veering from the quiet, searching feel of “Cracks In The Canvas” to the rollicking psychedelia of “The Chair”, Harvey embellishes the mood Parish has prepared, offering her own character driven vignettes.
The title track, one of several songs given a title by Parish, is the album’s most uh, mental moment, with Harvey manically all over the shop, swearing like a fishwife about “a mummy’s boy” with “chicken liver balls” and “chicken liver heart”. It’s hilarious and utterly insane, which, despite a perceived lack of humour in Harvey’s work to date, she’s clearly revelling in the moment, much like the equally deranged “Pig Will Not”, this track having more connection between the work of her once-paramour Nick Cave and his band The Birthday Party than anything she’s recorded before.
At this stage in her career, Harvey is too much of a rogue artist to follow any particular trend, which for some is part of her appeal, as she exists outside of contemporary music expectations and has always followed her own muse and taken her time in doing so. Not always will she sound the way you want to hear her, but often there’s a satisfying trade-off between what you want and what you get. A Woman A Man Walked by is a little bit of both.
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