Despite the decade between them, the two albums aren't without similarities. Once again, John Parish has composed the music while PJ Harvey has written the lyrics. And just as the singles from Dance Hall did nothing to convey the abrasive, schizophrenic album just over the horizon, "Black Hearted Love," the first single and opening track to A Woman a Man, is more a palate cleanser than anything else. Over the next 9 songs, Harvey and Parish weave tales of dead children, disturbed soldiers, and even a hateful hermaphrodite. And like she did for Dance Hall, Polly Jean takes her endlessly elastic voice to its outer limits of both range and theatricality.
Simply stated, it may not be the best album to play for the uninitiated.
Both artists have grown quite a bit over the past decade. Thus, A Woman a Man is far more polished than its predecessor in terms of both composition and production. The haunting piece "The Chair" shows off precise and engaging rhythmic shifts throughout. And the aforementioned "Black Hearted Love" is so slick it's almost suspiciously radio friendly.
But this display of progress is both a blessing and a curse for the album.
When A Woman a Man strives for beauty, it reaches heights that Dance Hall never came near. "The Soldier" is a gorgeous ballad that seems to improve upon the intricate, delicate contrapuntal style of Harvey's White Chalk pieces. "April" and "Passionless, Pointless" are both wonderfully textured, sonically and lyrically. And the album's loveliest moment, closing number "Cracks in the Canvas," is difficult to listen to less than twice in a row.
The problems arise when the album attempts a turn towards the dark side. The fact is Dance Hall did it better. There's nothing on this new record that can compare to the disturbing effects of "City of No Sun" or "Taut" from the previous Harvey/Parish collaboration. The title track comes frustratingly close, but it's weighed down by the incongruous "The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go," an instrumental piece that seems haphazardly tacked on to the end. "Pig Will Not," on the other hand, is just plain awkward. Clumsy lyrics like "I am your guardian / I am your fairy / Do my will!" are presented in a way that seems like self-conscious performance art rather than bracing emotional outbursts.
Harvey and Parish may just be too mature and accomplished to pull off the histrionics of their earlier work with the same illusion of spontaneity. Truthfully, that's not such a bad thing; it would have been a shame for the artists to tread the same ground again 13 years later. But because of this maturity, the album is less than convincing when it attempts the attention-grabbing stunts of its predecessor. Fortunately, these moments are few, and the majority ofA Woman a Man Walked By is well worth the listen.
Audio Reviews (May 8th, 2009)
Tags: PJ Harvey John Parish A Woman A Man Walked By