It’s odd to look back on PJ Harvey’s Dry some 17 years after it was revealed to the world. A self-assured debut, released amid the Riot Grrl boom of the early 1990s and containing a sound she moved away from almost instantly. Harvey’s peers weren’t from that set; she found a welcome home amid the flourishing Sausage Machine scene in north London (think: Gallon Drunk, Stereolab, Th’ Faith Healers) whom she also briskly distanced herself from. That constant process of returning anew, of finding fresh collaborators and infrequently returning to old ones, is Harvey’s modus operandi. She takes a further step back to the future here by resuming work with John Parish, last billed as a co-conspirator on Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996).
There’s a loose, improvised feel to much of this material, and opener “Black Hearted Love” is a rare backward glance for Harvey. The song returns to the feel of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea , and is the sound of Harvey and Parish finding their feet by delving into familiar tropes. The title “Black Hearted Love” is so typically PJ Harvey-esque that it’s a wonder she hasn’t used it before. But no matter, because it’s by far the best track on A Woman a Man Walked By , with the appeasing metallic clang of Harvey’s guitar, so typical of the sound of Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters (see also: Stereolab’s “Tomorrow Is Already Here”), ringing out splendidly.
The rest of the album veers wildly in lyrical content and musical exploration, deliberately lacking cohesion and often feeling unfocused. Harvey occasionally recovers the hoarse rasp she has intermittently rediscovered throughout her career, lending it to the countrified “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” and really letting it rip on the guttural “Pig Will Not.” Although Harvey’s music lacks a natural nexus, her lyrical obsessions often remain constant, and so it is here; water, death, and people’s names — all common Harvey signifiers — crop up regularly on A Woman a Man Walked By.
Much of her work is based around the discomfort found in long periods of physical displacement. That rudderless feeling of being far away from home is something of a lyrical motif for Harvey, and its genesis can be found in the songs on Rid of Me , many of which were about an ill-fated early career move to London. The brief, downbeat, yet brightly pretty “Leaving California” returns to that theme and is one of the strongest songs here, with Harvey positioning her sweet singing voice in marked contrast to its subject matter: “California killed me/ I think it’s time to leave/ I told no one I’d stay.”
It’s when Harvey and Parish hit those lows that the album really flourishes. “April” is a standout track that bears a wonderfully doom-laden horror-movie organ, and the penultimate “Passionless, Pointless” is beautifully driven by delicately thrumbed acoustic guitar. The title track and the aforementioned “Pig Will Not” are where the album gets wayward, with the former veering close to a female response to Nick Cave’s Grinderman project, but lacking the musical cohesion to back up Harvey’s hysterical vocals. An album of sporadic delights much like Dance Hall at Louse Point , this is a footnote in Harvey’s career, but not one that’s entirely unworthy of investigation.