That A Woman a Man Walked By doesn’t really stand as a proper follow-up to PJ Harvey and John Parish’s 1996 album Dance Hall at Louse Point, or to Harvey’s 2007 solo effort White Chalk, actually works in its favor. Lacking the difficult experimental bent of the former or the academic formalism of the latter, A Woman benefits from a more free-form structure and immediate, visceral songs. Opener “Black Hearted Love” is driven by throbbing blues riffs that mimic Harvey’s dramatic vocal turn, making for one of her finest singles in ages, while the oblique narrative of “Sixteen Fifteen Fourteen” plays out like Picnic at Hanging Rock in song form as Harvey hyperventilates over an unsettling Celtic-inspired arrangement. Songs like “Passionless, Pointless” and “The Soldier” hit hard because of their sharp, detailed observations and because of how well matched Parish’s instrumental compositions are with Harvey’s lyrics and fearless performances. While not all of the songs work (the title track, on which Harvey alternately lusts after and derides a “woman man” with “lily-livered parts,” quickly descends into camp, and “Pig Will Not,” inspired by Baudelaire’s Le Rebelle, is undone by her over-the-top barking), the project is effective in crafting a series of distinct, compelling vignettes. Moreover, A Woman illustrates how deeply these two long-time collaborators understand each other’s creative restlessness and their flair for the dramatic.
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