The work of PJ Harvey
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A Woman a Man Walked By (2009)

Harvey once responded quite favourably to an interviewer’s suggestion that she record an entirely comic album. Her second collaboration with John Parish isn’t it, but its gleefully anarchic mangling of styles and emotions gives the impression that it contains more comedy than in fact it does. The misleadingly mainstream-sounding opener, ‘Black Hearted Love’, is a gorgeously sly and silky, tongue-in-cheek ballad of smouldering passion; ‘Leaving California’ has a hallucinogenic quality as Harvey complains about having been out in the sun too long; and on the gloriously over-the-top title track Parish backs his friend's ridiculous, gender-smashing snarl against a ‘woman-man’ she both despises and lusts over who has ‘chicken-liver balls’, with awful twangy guitars and jaunty steel drums before collapsing into the balefully-titled instrumental second half, ‘The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go’. At the heart of the album is 'Pig Will Not', Harvey’s reworking of Baudelaire’s ‘The Rebel’ which captures the petulance of the resistant sinner by being mainly composed of her shouting ‘I will NOT!’ in a variety of intonations and then barking like a dog. ‘Hear me, hear the law – all that rubbish inside your rotting mind! I am your guardian, I am your fairy!’ None of that is quite in the poem, but Baudelaire might have allowed himself a smile and so might we. At the end we seem to leap into another room where a piano is playing while the guitars and drums carry on next door. On ‘April’ we get a hint of what Harvey will sound like when she’s 80: ‘How could I have worn such inappropriate clothing?’ On the sleeve, Parish stands in his back garden and presents Harvey with an apple, Adam and Eve in reverse. Her expression could be either mock-delight or mock-horror, but it’s mock-something.

It’s not all laughs, however. Led in by Parish’s banjo and completed by Harvey gasping and panting, the frenetic ‘Sixteen Fifteen Fourteen’ seems to relate a child’s game turned malign in some undefined way; ‘The Chair’ is sung by a bereaved mother, Harvey intoning the truth in silence only at the end; ‘April’ is actually quite serious; with its horrible imagery and determination to make the listener ‘share every pinprick of guilt’, ‘The Soldier’ bridges the music of White Chalk and the concerns of Let England Shake to come; ‘Passionless, Pointless’ lays out a dead relationship with delicate sensitivity against Parish’s plangent ukulele; and rounding the collection off, ‘Cracks in the Canvas’ is a spoken bereavement poem backed with the most reticent of accompaniment.

A Woman doesn’t have the unifying conceit or atmosphere of Dance Hall at Louse Point (it was recorded in bits over a far longer period), and you can see the joins between Harvey and Parish’s work in a number of places where lyrics and music slide alongside each other rather than blending. What unity it has is that of two virtuoso performers, absolutely confident in what they can do; the alchemy which marries Parish’s sometimes dense, clotted compositions to Harvey’s occasionally elusive lyricism, producing pieces of music more powerful than they have a right to be; and the fact that the two of them are clearly having such a whale of a time.

She’s 39.

Non-album tracks      

Though she contributed a bit of backing vocal, Harvey let John Parish handle both the b-sides that emerged from A Woman, ‘False Fire’ and ‘Within a Month’. And apart from that, before Let England Shake, there was nothing.