PJ Harvey is the woman of our nightmares. She's a commanding shape-shifter, shadow, and siren. Wailing to the black-and-blue heavens above, she opens herself up to the ugly-beauty of humanity and channels the collective voice of our passions and sufferings.
This is not hyperbole. PJ Harvey is a mythic creature, a once-upon-a-time English farmgirl morphed into a modern Medusan rock star. She scares the hell out of many music fans and musicians alike. But she doesn't frighten John Parish, a fellow Brit guitarist and songwriter who has worked with her on numerous projects (including 1995's breakthrough album To Bring You My Love) since they first played together in the late '80s. A versatile composer and performer, Parish is arguably her most tuned-in collaborator. Their latest recording, A Woman a Man Walked By, conveys the breadth of Harvey's changeling personality with a focus that captures one of the finest sessions of her career.
The new coproduction (with music by Parish and lyrics by Harvey) distills the essence of our 50-foot queenie. There's the savagery of "Pig Will Not," inspired by French poet Baudelaire and echoing the Jesus Lizard's twisted recalcitrance — "I will not!" — repeated ad infinitum with barking mad, hard-core punk breaks, in which Harvey literally arf-arfs. The title track is another frightful affair, a gender-bent assault in the voice of a character who "once knew a woman man ... [who] had chicken-liver balls ... chicken liver heart/made of chicken liver parts/lily-livered little parts." She fumes on the hyperventilated chorus: "I want his fuckin' ass!"
But Harvey isn't just a paradigmatic Riot Grrrl who has long challenged social constructs with dramatic provocation. She's a virtuosic singer of soaring melodies. She mesmerizes with her wraithlike falsetto on the pointillistic ballad "Leaving California" and her Indian-snakecharm vocals on the psychotropic-groove tune "The Chair." Against an ambient backdrop of folk-derived ukulele strums and single-note piano lines on "The Soldier," she communicates the fragility of a damaged warrior returned home after "walking on the faces of dead women." The song is riveting with its open-hearted depiction of anguish. Much like Harvey herself, the piece is striking for both its beauty and its ability to stop you dead in your tracks.
This is the PJ Harvey fans have revered since the 1992 release of her raw debut album, Dry. But in 2000, after half a dozen adventurous CDs, she alienated some of her cultlike followers with a set of mostly straight-ahead rock songs on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. While this disc garnered the expected accolades from Top 40 enthusiasts and expanded her name recognition, old-school aficionados bemoaned the silliness, if not phoniness, of titles like "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore." The follow-up, Uh Huh Her, came four years later, and while it was a fair attempt at exploring the grungy DIY power of her earliest efforts, the music wasn't entirely convincing; previously bowing to the gods of commercial success had thrown off Harvey's balance. Then there was 2007's luminescent White Chalk, her richest piano-and-keyboard–based work and the most haunting CD in her discography. Yet for the faithful who grew up on Harvey's convention-shattering, rock-raging, blues-belting, art-freaky persona, this startlingly original album was perhaps a bit too quiet.
The obvious remedy was to team up once again with her longtime bandmate for an epic throwdown. Parish challenged Harvey to summon the beast within. She answered the call with a vengeance.