If the Bank Of England had a pound for every time PJ Harvey has repeated that she doesn’t like to repeat herself, there would be no fiscal crisis. It’s become a bit of a running joke among her fans, but you’ve really got to hand it to the Dorset chameleon – somehow she always manages to confound expectations.
While it seems that few people have spent the last 12 years longing for a follow-up to 1996’s Harvey/John Parish album Dance Hall At Louse Point, there’s been a massive surge of interest surrounding this new collaborative effort. Described by Harvey as “quite a peculiar little record” way back in March 2008, it’s only now that we can really start to grasp just how much of an understatement that was. In no uncertain terms, A Woman A Man Walked By is fucking weird.
Lead single Black Hearted Love is a crabwise take on Harvey’s most commercial output, skirting the blues-rock idiom she so boldly shied away from on 2007’s White Chalk, but here the thrillingly abrasive guitar work is classic Parish. As with Dance Hall, it’s he that provides A Woman A Man Walked By with its instrumental complexity while Harvey has crafted the lyrics and coaxed out each song’s unique personality.
Situated wisely at the very beginning, Black Hearted Love is the album’s rogue trader, a teasing illusion of sensual togetherness that soon gives way to voices of barbary, emotional distress and visceral carnality.
The spooked falsetto of White Chalk returns for the rattling, skeletal Leaving California and The Soldier, a semi-political sketch of a regretful combatant who walks “on the faces of dead women” that neatly subverts its grim premise with a serenely strummed ukulele. Other songs push Harvey into alien vocal terrain.
Whether channelling her inner Miss Havisham on the wracked and cobwebbed April or yipping defiantly on the harshly distorted, multi-tracked Pig Will Not – inspired by the Baudelaire poem Le Rebelle in which an unrepentant sinner refuses to bend to the will of a control freak angel – Harvey is not just a convincing dramatist, she’s aggressively true to the tone of the music.
The title track is where things become patently ridiculous. A primitive rant that hurls rather than flows its way out of the speakers, Harvey comically emasculates the tragic sap in the narrator’s path like a tornado of thorns – “That woman man, I want his fucking ass!” – before lapsing into a peculiarly sunny yet chaotic instrumental. Even stranger, the song’s brutality demands repeated listens.
Harvey has long excelled at lexical portraiture, particularly since the largely third-person narratives of 1998’s Is This Desire?, but she truly outshines herself on songs like The Chair and Passionless, Pointless, in which she intelligently draws out each nuance of the story until the devastating arc is outlined fully. The mother close to losing her mind after her son is drowned; the heartbroken lover coolly dissecting a relationship’s failure; Harvey inhabits them without squandering her believability.
On an album full of standouts, most notable of all is Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen, a terrifying song that commutes an innocent game of hide and seek between two young girls to a grisly, Blair Witch-style unspoken conclusion, via the soundtrack to a Summerisle Celtic pagan ritual (with added banjo). Harvey rages, squeals and hyperventilates to uncomfortable levels, all underpinned by the incessant counting down and a quickening mantra: “There is no laughter in the garden”. Not an album to put on just before bed then.
A feverishly atmospheric and potent brew, A Woman A Man Walked By does nothing to harm the batting average of the Harvey/Parish team (they also worked closely together on White Chalk and 1995’s To Bring You My Love). A more cynical ear might accuse Harvey of trying too hard, of over-reaching in the performance stakes, but she’s too switched on for that. She’s aware of inviting claims of contrivance with these theatrical songs, but insists it doesn’t feel like she’s acting.
Whatever your interpretation, it’s clear both parties have a deeper understanding of one another’s music than any outsider could ever hope to comprehend, a synergy that has only strengthened over the 20+ years of their acquaintance. Dance Hall At Louse Point may have been a passing curio to most of the record-buying public but A Woman A Man Walked By deserves to enjoy a loftier status. Ignore it at your peril.