A Woman A Man Walked By from PJ Harvey and John Parish is an album that is easy to admire but not always easy to love. Born from Harvey’s desire to continually progress and evolve musically, this album is a testament to creative freedom. It is singularly strange and curious, notable for the lack of bass on many of the tracks and full of songs of random scuttling sketchbook instrumentation. Harvey is well enough established that she does not have to be overly concerned about commercial concerns. This really is an album that sounds like the cliché “I’ll play the songs that I like, and if anyone else enjoys them that’s a bonus.”
Twelve years after their first and only other joint venture, A Woman A Man Walked By follows a formula where Parish writes and plays the music whilst Harvey concentrates on the lyrics and vocals. It enables Harvey to push her voice to the limits. Sometimes her performance becomes almost over ambitious and too theatrical, such as on April where she sounds like a girlish hunched old lady. Harvey is often at her best when she holds back a little. A song such as the organ led spoken word mantra of Cracks In The Canvas displays such restraint where she intones “How do we cope with the days after death? Empty days. Nothing left. Not even a funeral.” It’s vaguely reminiscent of the miserable art house pop of Black Box Recorder.
The variation of the songs is wide. There’s the atmospheric guitar rock of Black Hearted Love which sounds not that far removed from The Howling Bells, the snarling, rasping Pig Will Not which harks back to her earlier solo work and the banjo fronted Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen, one of the other highlights of the record.
Ultimately A Woman A Man Walked By will preserve Harvey’s status of an artist who is always prepared to challenge, take risks and divert away from the mainstream. It may not be her finest hour, but it is still an interesting and admirable concoction.