Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By


Album Review: A Woman a Man Walked By
PJ Harvey and John Parish
Island Records

If Polly Jean Harvey ever wanted to avoid the often inevitable record company ‘Best Of’ compilation album, A Woman a Man Walked By (released tomorrow) would suffice as a nice little retrospective of her music thus far. While the record features all new material, and technically exists as the second collaboration LP with musician and longtime producer John Parish, Walked By manages to sum up an exciting career, spanning almost two decades. 

To take care of some of the technicalities behind this record it should be noted that A Woman a Man Walked By is the musical love child of both Harvey and Parish–the former writing all lyrics and taking care of the vocals, with the latter writing and performing the music. Parish has been a longtime friend and musical partner, having produced and played on three of Harvey’s past studio albums, as well as a prior collaboration project, 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point. Here it’s as if Harvey was able to focus solely on her writing and vocal stylings (a similar collaboration worked wonders last year for David Byrne and Brian Eno).

The result of this recent partnership is a genre-bending album from Harvey’s past and present. From the heavy alternative blues rock of Dry and To Bring You My Love, to the atmospheric folk tunes from 2007’s bizarre concept departure, White Chalk, Harvey skips from one familiar sound to the next with the confidence of an artist summing up her artistic existence, while also bringing to the forefront a bevy of some of her best songs to date.

Is the album as ambitious as White Chalk or as prolific as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea? No. Does it showcase her abilities as a raging blues guitar banshee? Not quite. Where A Woman a Man Walked By succeeds is in is Harvey’s knack for writing haunting alt-rock songs and her full-fledged vocals, which casually shift from grunge to ethereal folk.

On the rip-roaring opener, “Black Hearted Love,” a welcomed heavy rock song that is worlds apart from White Chalk’s exercise in cryptic piano lullabies, Harvey aptly sings, “I’d like to take you to a place I know.” It’s as if she’s asking us if we’re ready to embark on whatever lies ahead. The short answer to this instant classic–yes.

On “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” Parish’s acoustic guitar riffs pick up where Jimmy Page left off on Zeppelin III’s “Friends,” while Harvey croons about an ill-fated game of hide and seek.

“Leaving California,” The Soldiers,” “April” are the record’s three unofficial continuations from White Chalk, relying heavily on Harvey’s newfound love of soothing child like piano/organ riffs and falsettos. The latter of the trio features one of the most chilling musical ascents of any song Harvey has ever recorded behind a sparse drum march and a Hammond B3 Organ tuned to ‘haunting.’  

The album’s title track–a two-part anti-love song (?) culminating with a rather jarring but beautiful instrumental piece–pays homage to Harvey’s gritty punk past circa Dry, and may be the only song to ever feature the lines “he had chicken liver heart made of chicken liver parts / liver little parts” followed by “I want his fucking ass.” Sung with the same razor sharp virtuosic pipes that once established Harvey as badass singer songwriter she’s evolved from, this is one of the album’s highlights. one that definitely grows on the ears after its initial lyrical shock and awe.

A Woman a Man Walked By’s most surprising tracks also couldn’t be farther apart in nature. “Pig Will Not” might be the record’s most forgettable track, although its screeching guitar/vocal distortion will appease the fans of past songs like To Bring You My Love’s “Long Snake Moan.” At the other end of Harvey’s spectrum is the record’s closer, “Cracks in the Canvas,” an atmospheric two-minute spoken word exercise that would feel right at home in a David Lynch film, most likely sung by a perfect ‘10’ blonde with a This Mortal Coilesque, dream-pop voice. At the end she leaves us with:

I’m looking for an answer
Me and a million others
Disbelievers
Desserted lovers
Dear God, you’d better not let me down this time
Cracks in the canvas
Look like roads that never end

It could be that A Woman a Man Walked By is yet another side project/segue to Polly Jean’s next musical direction, similarly to her last collaboration with Parish, which followed the extremely successful To Bring You My Love. Perhaps it’s simply just a pet project of the two that had been long overdue. Whatever the album’s goal might be is trivial. The ten songs that fill this album channel an unprecedented career from one of finer musicians working today. For Harvey fans this may ultimately serve as a bridge to her future endeavors. For anyone just jumping into her music it just might be the perfect catalyst for a an appreciation of Harvey’s music.  

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