Though they have only cut one officially billed collaborative album before (1996's Dance Hall at Louse Point), the alliance between alt-pop priestess Polly Jean Harvey and writer/guitarist/sound sculptor John Parish extends back nearly two decades.
Together, they co-produced two of Harvey's finest works: 1995's post-punk breakthrough To Bring You My Love and 2007's devastatingly understated White Chalk.
Their double-billing on the new and wondrous A Woman a Man Walked By indicates Harvey wrote lyrics while the album's soundscapes — which morph and move like a lava stream — are Parish's creations. As a result we hear music that enhances and agitates Harvey's willful storylines and singing. That makes A Woman a Man Walked By another masterful Harvey creepfest, in a way. While it's not as pointedly frightening as White Chalk, it is every bit as ghostly.
The tunes that approximate White Chalk's eerie quiet offer the biggest thrills. On Leaving California, Harvey sings with a hushed, almost child-like falsetto. You could almost call the performance vulnerable (an adjective one is hard pressed to apply to many Harvey songs) were it not for the barroom piano behind her. As the tune melts into a wash of psychedelic color, the haunting vocals simply evaporate into the ether.
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Harvey's vocal quivers are equally reserved on April. Somewhere between upturned fancy and cautious confessional, the song's demo-like atmosphere of keyboards and march-like drums underscore a walking-on-eggshells demeanor that Harvey sings of ("all that careful stepping, 'rounding of my soul") in a past tense, as if disaster had already hit.
Of course, there are points during A Woman a Man Walked By that sets all this repressed tension loose in the sorts of cathartic, caustic ways fans have come to expect from Harvey's more brutal electric recordings.
The album's title tune dishes the dirt on "passion long gone" with a narrative as primal as it is pensive. Parish's instrumental coda, The Crow Knows Where All the Children Go, takes the song out for a neo-Latin spin that fades into friendly fire of piano and fuzzy, fussy guitar.
Even more immediate is Pig Will Not. Here, Harvey goes wild by repeating the defiant, personalized variation of the title ("I will not") like a mantra before barking like a hound during the tune's unsettled refrain. Parish then sprinkles fairy dust and the tune fades to plaintive piano. But the preceding thunder is still there, muted enough to sound like it has been locked in a closet.
Maybe it's the fact that the hollowed ghost stories of White Chalk are only 16 months old. But the most disturbing and evocative moments on A Woman a Man Walked By are the ones that boast a similarly wicked reserve. Two of them, in fact, close the album.
Passionless, Pointless is a savagely beautiful breakup song that, despite its drifting cool of woodwind-like keyboards and Harvey's whispery moan, throws down the gloves ("let the dirt fall, let heads roll") so it can point fingers ("you wanted less than I wanted"). The finale, Cracks in the Canvas, is less a companion piece than a post-mortem.
Not the cheeriest album for spring, to be sure. But the sentiments of A Woman a Man Walked By are as dramatic and real as those on any past Harvey album. It's just that now the musical terrain has become more varied, treacherous and fascinating.