A Woman a Man Walked By arrived just a year and a half after PJ Harvey's equally difficult and brilliant White Chalk. That alone makes it notable, since the last time she released albums in such quick succession was the early to mid-'90s, around the same time of her last songwriting collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point. That album's unbridled experiments provided a sharp contrast to the subversive polish of its predecessor, To Bring You My Love; while A Woman a Man Walked By isn't quite as overt an about-face from White Chalk, the difference is still distinct. Here, Harvey and Parish (who played on and co-produced White Chalk) trade sublime, sustained eeriness for freewheeling vignettes that cover a wider range of sounds and moods than her music has in years. They begin with "Black Hearted Love," the equivalent of Dance Hall at Louse Point's "This Was My Veil" -- that is, the album's most accessible moment: guitar-heavy yet sleek, its riffs full of pregnant pauses as Harvey hones in on the one she wants, the song's sinister romance initially seems dangerously close to melodrama ("When you call out my name in rapture/I volunteer my soul for murder"), but she sings "you are my black-hearted love" so tenderly and knowingly that it transcends cliché.
This immediacy just makes the swift twists and turns the rest of A Woman a Man Walked By takes even more striking. The wildly jangling acoustic guitar and breathless vocals of the following track, "Sixteen Fifteen Fourteen," make that clear right away, but despite its nervy intensity, the song -- and the rest of the album -- is remarkably direct. Similarly, Harvey's character studies are just as vivid as other artists' really real, from-the-soul lyrics, and she embodies them just as completely: on "The Soldier," she sings of "walking on the faces of dead women" with haunted fragility; on "Daniel," she's a mother so devastated by loss that she can only mention it by name at the last possible moment. A Woman a Man Walked By also boasts songs that rank among Harvey's most intimate and seemingly confessional. From its shimmering guitar and mournful flute to its carefully observed words ("you slept facing the wall"), "Passionless, Pointless" captures a dying romance with dreamy desolation, while "Cracks in the Canvas" closes the album with the beautifully simple yet open-ended admission "I'm looking for an answer, me and a million others."
Best of all, though, are A Woman a Man Walked By's furious -- and surprisingly hilarious -- moments, which leave conventional notions about sex and sexuality trampled in their wake. The first part of "A Woman a Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go" finds Harvey deriding and lusting after a "woman man" with "lily-livered little parts," switching between a guttural snarl and fey soprano as she tears him to pieces (the second, instrumental part is Parish's only solo credit on the album, a riot of pianos and twitchy percussion that's nearly as wound-up as what came before it). "Pig Will Not" is even rawer, mixing Rid of Me-like firepower with a wicked sense of humor and feral barking with lines like "true love is what we're doing now." Even the far quieter "Leaving California" reveals a surprising amount of mischief, invoking some of White Chalk's mist and gloom for its ironic kiss-off to the Golden State. Despite the album's many dark and evocative moments, there's a playfulness and liberated spirit underlying A Woman a Man Walked By. Parish and Harvey's idea of fun might be very different than that of many other artists, but hearing them cover so much musical and emotional territory is often exhilarating.