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- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Few things can match my devotion to PJ Harvey's career. Some people listen to songs about personal strength or inspiration, and that can help them through the "dark times" in their lives. Harvey has been the artist, more than any other, who has gotten me through the "darker times," but it's because she sings of the exact opposite of personal strength and inspiration - she unleashes her demons, pours out her longing. Sometimes she shrieks and screams and begs to be put out of her misery. She said, years ago, that she can hear, when listening to 1995's classic To Bring You My Love that it was the darkest point in her life, and it was right after that she went in to recording Dance Hall at Louse Point with John Parrish. That album featured a wildness that came straight from the demons of To Bring You My Love - she screamed her choruses, inhabited the personae of killers and victims and even Peggy Lee declaring that there's nothing to life. The album was a looser triumph of the same type of lunacy that made To Bring You My Love a more direct masterpiece.
It was with this in mind that I was particularly excited for A Woman A Man Walked By, Harvey and Parrish's second joint album. At this point, Harvey and Parrish made their process clear - Parrish creates a composition, and Harvey uses her vast channeling powers to find a character and song that fits it. Maybe that's too much knowledge, because when I hear "Black Hearted Love," the song that opens the record, I hear a serviceable, competent song that I don't feel much from. In Dance Hall..., a desperation fueled their lunacy, and here, Harvey's got a craft behind her creative impulses that's undeniable, but it isn't quite as essential as it was 14 years ago. In songs like "The Chair," a beat wanders away while we're stuck with a half-minded Harvey babble about... a chair. "Leaving California" sounds like a halfhearted outtake from 2007's White Chalk, full of warbling falsetto but without that album's gothic confessionalism.
Still, I'm not quite willing to count out A Man A Woman Walked By, and it's because despite not being fueled by the same alchemizing misery, Harvey hasn't lost the spirit that makes her such an unpredictable force. One review I read of the record in Entertainment Weekly seized on the screaming "I Will Not" of "Pig Will Not" as being too "regressively adolescent," which I suspect Harvey would read as high praise. I read that as high praise - the song, which involves whooping and barking, is a blast of insolence. Much like "16, 15, 14" churns with an off-kilter acoustic guitar that segues into a blazing chorus, and "Passionless, Pointless," which is gorgeously sad. Beyond that, two songs make me think the Harvey I know and love is still going strong; there's "April," which sings in a warble so frail that when it segues into a gorgeous chorus, it feels intimate and wounding. It's the type of late-night song Harvey's always made me want to turn to. Finally, there's that extraordinary title track, a chant of cattiness and biting acoustic power chords that I can't get enough of - by the time she breaks loose in a vitriolic wail of "I want your f---ing a--!" you're wailing right along with her. It's only an artist still in full grip of her gifts that can inspire the same lunatic fist pounding.