A Woman a Man Walked By isn't the most essential item in either artist's discography, but it's still one worth hearing -- if only to witness how slowly and deliberately it reveals its difficult charms.
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.
Listening to A Woman a Man Walked By validates that suspicion, making it clear that Parish's role as a collaborator transcends that of mere sounding board or tasteful instrumentalist. On Harvey's solo albums, one gets the sense that even if she gets input from any number of others, the results always reflect her distinct visions made manifest. Here, as well as on Dance Hall at Louse Point, Parish's equal footing makes itself distinctly felt even if he never steps into the spotlight. Instead, he sticks to his strengths as a composer, crafting the music on each song to a state of simple elegance before letting Harvey have her way with the entire batch. Yet there is one notable difference between this album and its predecessor: A rawer, less refined sound that suggests the duo self-imposed a limit to the number of instruments or tracks they were allowed to use.
As if acknowledging that Harvey's pop sensibilities haven't surfaced in a while, the album starts off with the misleadingly straightforward "Black Hearted Love" -- a guitar-heavy composition that establishes continuity with the pair's earliest work together. But that mood is not meant to last: "Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen", the album's second track, heralds a slow descent into more challenging waters with Harvey counting backwards like some twisted inversion of Leslie Feist. And like the majority of Harvey's experimentally oriented work, the nine tracks following "Black Hearted Love" contain equal quantities of inspiration and self-indulgence.
An interesting thread that runs through the album finds songs like "Leaving California", "April", and "The Soldier" sounding as if they belong to the bleak yet compelling world of Harvey's 2007 release White Chalk. In spite of the similarities, these pieces don't come across so much as leftovers from Harvey's previous album, but rather part of an overall feeling that A Woman a Man Walked By aims to touch upon all of the artistic identities she has assumed over the course of her career. They're also some of the album's most rewarding songs: "The Soldier", in particular, creates its mood with lo-fi, tape-hissing production and weather-beaten piano, while the others employ droning organs, ukuleles, and a host of other instruments to bring their unusual arrangements to life.
Yet these fragile constructions are offset by abrasive tracks like "Pig Will Not" -- where Harvey's vocal part finds her barking like a dog -- and "A Woman a Man Walked By / The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go". Harvey has always found comfort in the confrontational, and the two distinct sections of the latter offer some of the album's most thrilling and demanding moments in precisely that context. Here, Harvey sounds uncannily like Nick Cave as she dresses down an unidentified girlie-boy -- think of it as "50ft Queenie" with arty music and lyrics far more direct and explicit ("I want his fucking ass / I want your fucking ass!") -- before dissolving into a Brian Eno-like instrumental in a brilliant juxtaposition of beauty and obscenity.
It has already been suggested that the title of the track "Passionless, Pointless" would suffice as the album's review. It's a clever observation, to be sure, but one that misses the target entirely -- neither of those adjectives apply to anything heard within. PJ Harvey never lacks passion -- quite the contrary, it can be her greatest asset and most flagrant overindulgence -- and John Parish obviously cares too much about the subtle details of his music to be dismissed that easily. And even if A Woman a Man Walked By isn't the most essential item in either artist's discography, it's still one worth hearing -- if only to witness how slowly and deliberately it reveals its difficult charms.