I've always really liked Polly Jean Harvey (better known to the world as just PJ).
It has also been really amazing to watch her development as an artist over the years. From her early days as a sort of heir apparent to Patti Smith on early albums like Rid of Me, to the more fully developed sound of albums like Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, the one constant in PJ Harvey has been her passion.
Just lately though, PJ Harvey has also been stretching her musical vision. On last year's brilliant White Chalk, she pared it down to a really stark-sounding song cycle, which — for the very first time in a lot of ways — revealed her to be a truly amazing vocalist. The poetry was always there, but amid the stark setting of White Chalk, PJ Harvey also displayed her rather amazing vocal range. The songs themselves were hauntingly beautiful enough, but the vocal delivery — well, that was something else.
On A Woman, A Man Walked By, PJ Harvey is reunited with sometime collaborator John Parish (Dance Hall at Louse Point), and the results are both startling and, frankly, pretty damned amazing.
Here, Harvey's often starkly-worded poetry is wedded with Parish's music for an album which lies somewhere in between the minimalist beauty of White Chalk and the more fully realized arrangements of an album like Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.
Musically speaking, A Woman, A Man Walked By is all over the place and, in this instance, that is definitely a good thing. Songs like the opener "Black Hearted Love" and "Pig Will Not" find PJ hearkening back to the minimalist punk-rock roots of albums like Rid Of Me.
On the former, the robustly-punk sound plays in sharp contrast to Harvey's gorgeous vocal. On the latter, Harvey just out and out shrieks the lyrics "I Will Not!" behind a wall of punk-rock noise, augmented by an eerie, late-night-horror-show sort of keyboard sound. Yet, on the very next track, "Passionless, Pointless," she goes all reflective on your ass with some gorgeous poetry.
This is typical of the musical contrasts found on A Woman, A Man Walked By. But it is the lyrics that are the most telling here. From all that I have heard, the songwriting process of this album involved Parish laying down music tracks, and PJ Harvey simply writing the lyrics off the cuff. In other words, this is some stream-of-consciousness stuff. The result are songs that sound like they were ripped straight from PJ Harvey's soul.
On "Leaving California," Harvey intones how "no one but me is walking under palms that give no shade," before concluding that "California killed me." On "The Chair," Harvey takes on the mantle of a mother grieving for her son in lyrics that simply rip your heart out, like "pieces of my life are gone, washed away in the water that took my son." On "April," which seems to be a centerpiece of this album, PJ Harvey turns in an absolutely gorgeous vocal performance, wailing away about how these days "just seem to crush me."
A Woman, A Man Walked By is, quite simply, a stunning record that displays PJ Harvey's talents as both a great vocalist and songwriter. It is, at this point, an early candidate for the best record that I have heard this year.
I can't wait to hear what's next.