John Parish and PJ Harvey

A Woman a Man Walked By

Rating: 2.5

Label: Island

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A Woman a Man Walked By, PJ Harvey’s second album with long-time collaborator John Parish, is a belated follow-up to the pair’s understated, underrated Dance Hall at Louse Point. Though it may seem a shallow device, album covers have been a reliable thumbnail guide to Harvey’s music. Stories from City, Stories of the Sea (2000) featured a chic, elegant Harvey on the streets of NYC and the songs were similarly urban, sophisticated and sexy; 2004’s gutturally titled Uh Huh Her (which gave a band its name) had a cheap looking, somewhat ugly snapshot for an album cover that was a return to a rawer, messier style for Harvey; the stark, piano-driven White Chalk from 2007 had a simple photograph of a calm Harvey in a white dress. The cover of A Woman a Man Walked By is a two-shot of Harvey and Parish, with him seated and her in profile. The music inside is collaborative, straightforward and unsurprising.

While Harvey has been impressively consistent and remains a restless artistic spirit, her recent work has been a little unsatisfying. She hasn’t made an album as definitive or powerful as 1993’s Rid of Me, or as intense and dramatic as 1995’s To Bring You My Love, two high water marks in her career. A Woman a Man Walked By is an occasionally interesting, mildly inconsistent and often frustrating effort. Harvey handles most of the vocals and lyrics, while Parish handles most of the instruments and music. Opener “Black Hearted Love” feels a little like PJ Harvey doing PJ Harvey. She sings “I’d like to take you to a place I know/ My black hearted” and this place is one familiar to listeners, where she explores the darker side of passion/love/desire. “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” may be the most adventurous song on the album and shows a direction that should have been pursued further. It includes handclaps, breathless vocals, and a psych-folk vibe that recalls the more acoustic, weird pastoral Led Zeppelin of III. The title track also has a stomping Zeppelin feel and Harvey is in furious “50ft Queenie” mode, shrieking like a banshee “I want your fucking ass!” The angry rock ‘n’ roll Harvey is short lived, as the song segues into a meandering instrumental.

Nothing else really stands out and the album never settles into a groove. “Passionless, Pointless” is indeed that, while “Pig Will Not” is a discordant, somewhat ugly scrawl of a song, which at least has Harvey unleashing her blowtorch voice. Dance Hall included a cover of the bittersweet Leiber and Stoller song “Is This All There Is?;” “Cracks in the Concrete” closes this album on a similarly reflective, resigned note, with a stately organ, hymnal mood, and Harvey quietly speaking lines like, “Dear God, you better not let me down this time.”

A formidable, uncompromising talent like Harvey will always be worth following and she remains one of rock’s great singers and a compelling, visceral performer, something that doesn’t always come through on record. As what is probably her last album of the decade, A Woman a Man Walked By is good by mainstream standards, but it’s mediocre by her standards, ending a creative but erratic period of music with a whimper rather than a hoped for bang.

by Lukas Sherman

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