I suppose, after all these years, I should be able to spot when PJ Harvey is taking the piss. But sometimes, as on the new PJ Harvey & John Parish album, “A Woman A Man Walked By”, the line between bravura self-parody and slightly daft self-indulgence can be hard to identify.
The title track, for instance, of this second Harvey/Parish collaboration (after “Dance Hall At Louse Point”), is ostensibly the sort of fervid, overheated Nick Cave rip-off you could hear most nights in the Kentish Town Bull & Gate 15 or 20 years ago. It involves the predatory Harvey contemplating a man with “chicken liver balls” and “chicken liver spleen”, planning “to explore the damp alleyways of my soul” and finally, through gritted teeth, announcing, “That woman man, I want his fucking ass.”
It’s a long way from the demure, quasi-Victorian reflections of the wonderful “White Chalk”. But “A Woman A Man Walked By” is quite a schizophrenic album, so that the title track is followed by a surging instrumental coda, “The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go”, and then a sort of forlorn and lovely miniature, “The Soldier”, sung in her “White Chalk” higher register, not unlike the song with the ukulele (“Deep Water”?) on Portishead’s “Third”.
That, in turn, is followed by a primal, incantatory gush called “Pig Will Not” that revisits some of her most brutal territory in much the same way as the gnarliest bits on “Uh Huh Her”. Unlike “Dance Hall At Louse Point”, which if memory serves, felt very much like a composed and focused piece, “A Woman A Man Walked By” is oddly suggestive of Harvey randomly, playfully flitting between a whole grab-bag of moods from her entire career. It’s testament to John Parish’s understanding of how she works best, I guess, that even though he wrote all the music here, it’s often stylistically impossible to tell the difference between these songs and Harvey’s solo work.
It’s also, initially, quite a confusing listen, where the cornier moments like that title track stand out at first, overwhelming many of the subtler and stronger tracks. Fairly predictably, though, a few listens make a big difference, and the jewels start to appear, not least a gauzy and potent ballad called “Passionless, Pointless” that reminds me of one of those later songs on “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” like “Horses In My Dreams” or “We Float”, though perhaps treated more like some of the material on “Is This Desire?”
The superb opener, “Black Hearted Love”, would’ve sat well on “Stories From The City” too, riding a looming and looping Parish that manages to be at once crunching and elegaic. For those of us who are paid to try and find stereotypes and straitjackets for an artist like PJ Harvey, it’s a great contrary statement: how better to open an album that most people would expect to be difficult and a little experimental than with the most commercial song she’s put her name to in nearly a decade?
Listening to it on headphones for the first time now as I type, and the artfulness of Parish’s playing is starting to emerge: the clank, texture and detail of his guitar grappling for space with some freestyle drums, Mellotron thickness and kindergarten piano on “The Chair”, for instance.
Good hooks, good ideas, one or two slightly goth lyrical conceits, and another generally excellent album involving PJ Harvey, I guess.