Retreads have never been Polly Jean Harvey’s thing. None of her albums sound alike; each offers its own beguiling charm and haunting beauty. Her discography’s lone rehash, 2004’s Uh-Huh Her, attempted to recycle the bluesy guitar dirges and wounded feminine snarl of early works Dry and Rid of Me, and it kind of sucked. We all pretended otherwise at the time, but it’s easily the weakest release in her healthy catalog. 2007’s White Chalk marked a new direction for Harvey -- still lovelorn and haunting, but piano-based. It was beautiful. 2009 brings another new highlight for Harvey, and her quickest turnaround yet this decade: A stylistic repeat that’s actually awesome.
A Woman a Man Walked By finds Harvey again teaming up with John Parish, who co-wrote 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point and produced and played on White Chalk. Its quietest moments, like “Leaving California” or “Cracks in the Canvas,” recall White Chalk’s torment and ambience. As for the rockers, like lead-off “Black Hearted Love” or “Pig Will Not,” well, they’re loud and surreal and psychedelic. Harvey hasn’t cut loose electric howls like these in 15 years. It’s a welcome return.
The album gets the whole “accessibility” thing over with up front with “Black Hearted Love.” It’s a solid blend of everything to come -- the choruses rock and shriek while the verses float by. Harvey’s voice is given more room to flex than on White Chalk, where it was always high-pitched and restrained. Here, she’s shouting. And Parish shreds the whole dang time. “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” is an acoustic barn-burner -- think To Bring You My Love’s “Send His Love to Me.” From track three onward, though, the record starts to test the listener. The songs become less catchy or pop-oriented, but they’re certainly memorable.
Harvey pushes her register on “Leaving California” and “April,” and her unconventional delivery warps the songs a bit. Parish keeps the music slow and understated. It’s too discordant to be soft, too soft to be truly discordant. The record’s second half pushes the album further by upping the musicianship and impressionistic lyrics. The tranny-toting title track has more weird delivery from Harvey coupled with funny lyrics -- the way she grunts lines like “I want your fucking ass” is artful yet completely silly. It’s a refreshing dash of surrealism after White Chalk’s downer-thon.
White Chalk stills hovers over A Woman a Man Walked By, however. “The Soldier” examines a dream in which the narrator yearns to share his/her suffering -- “Send me home damaged / Send me home disposed / Send me home damaged and wanting” goes the climax. “Passionless, Pointless” covers a failing relationship, and the sparse imagery that emerges hits hard. The intro is all about trying to cut through tensions and talking, but the line that ultimately sticks the most is “I slept facing the wall,” later changed to “you.” Breaking up the two is “Pig Will Not,” a chaotic crasher in which Harvey moans and groans and lurches about possessed and Parish places searing guitar/thundering drums side-by-side with plaintive piano lines.
A Woman a Man Walked By’s ebb and flow keeps the listener recovering from each previous track. It constantly circumvents PJ fans’ expectations by both embracing and rejecting templates established by White Chalk and Dance Hall at Louse Point. It’s self-lacerating yet giddy, fiery yet contemplative, fluctuating from moment to moment. Parish’s compositions are solid throughout, although the sparse first half can get tedious at times. Still, though, he’s clearly a great force for Harvey to play against. Harvey struggled to find new creative directions for most of this decade, but her last two Parish team-ups have been fantastic. She’s the sort of artist who needs to constantly shift -- like a Bowie. And like a Bowie, she just might bring her best out when those around her do the same.