In 2007, Polly Jean Harvey surprised her fans by centering White Chalk around the piano, an instrument she admitted to never having played previously. Two years later, the shock and awe on A Woman a Man Walked By, her new duo record with longtime collaborator John Parish, arrives in a somewhat down-and-dirtier fashion: “I want your fucking ass!” she growls over a ragged psychobilly groove in the delightful title track, which also finds her describing somebody’s “chicken-liver heart,” “chicken-liver spleen,” and—oh, yes—”chicken-liver balls.” Clearly, the global economic crisis has cut into her euphemism budget in a frightfully serious way.
Not that Harvey’s ever cared much about sparing anyone’s delicate constitution, of course. (“Robert De Niro, sit on my face,” she famously demanded of the Shark Tale star in “Reeling,” from 1993’s 4-Track Demos.) Still, much of A Woman feels particularly brutal, even by her considerable standards, with the singer pushing her voice to its various extremes over cracked noise-roots arrangements that often suggest Sonic Youth having a go at the Carter Family songbook. In the way it lurches from riff to riff, the album plays more like a sequel to Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey’s pointedly disjunctive 2004 disc, than to the unified White Chalk. According to the artist herself, it’s neither—rather, A Woman belatedly follows up her and Parish’s first co-billed joint, Dance Hall at Louse Point, which they put out way back in 1996.
“The two experiences couldn’t be more different,” she says of the contrast between making a PJ Harvey record and a Harvey/Parish record. She’s calling from Bristol, England, on a break from rehearsal; now that they’ve gotten around to releasing something, the two musicians have assembled a band and are hitting the road for a tour that includes a show this weekend at South by Southwest in Austin and one March 26 at the Fillmore New York. For a PJ Harvey album, she continues, “Everything is generated by me. But when I do a record with John, it’s a very simple 50-50 division: He writes the music, and I write the lyrics and vocals. I don’t have a starting point until he’s given me the music, then I have something to run with.”
Parish says that making another collaborative disc “was something we always intended to do and always talked about,” but other projects kept intervening. (Parish has produced albums by Tracy Chapman, the Eels, and Giant Sand, and released two handsome solo efforts through Thrill Jockey.) The seeds for A Woman were sown when Harvey discovered a forgotten demo of a song the pair had written together called “Black Hearted Love.” Says Parish with a laugh: “Polly played it and phoned me immediately and said, ‘This is fantastic—we’ve got to make a new album!’ “
“Black Hearted Love,” which opens the new set, is indeed fantastic, a Chrissie Hynde–cool guitar-rock gem that applies the insistent rush of PJ’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea to an account of volunteering one’s soul for murder. But all 10 tracks demonstrate the uncommon creative bond between the two, who’ve known each other since Harvey asked Parish’s early band Automatic Dlamini to play her 18th birthday party. This is not a record that sounds like it was composed in two distinct parts: Though Parish wrote the music before knowing what Harvey would add, his pieces perfectly cushion her vocals; likewise, her lyrics tease out of the music themes you can hear bubbling beneath the dirt-caked guitars and junk-shop percussion.
Autolux drummer Carla Azar, who traveled from Los Angeles to Bristol to play on the album, says Harvey “really looks up to John and learned a lot from him. They just have this profound respect for each other. If Polly disagreed with John about something in the studio, she might mention it, but then she’d turn to me and say, ‘I trust him—he knows what he’s doing.’ “
“I always thrive on collaborating with someone who can do things I can’t,” says Harvey. “John’s palette is much wider than mine. His stuff is very intricate and unusual, but it’s also moving and emotionally engaging. As a singer, it’s very exciting to see what you can come up with to match that.” On A Woman, Harvey accomplishes this by wildly varying her attack, ascending to the upper reaches of her falsetto in “Leaving California,” croaking like a post-punk Miss Havisham in “April,” and loosing an agonized primal scream in “Pig Will Not.” “I’ve always been a very instinctive singer,” Harvey admits. “I never really feel that I’m directing what I’m doing. I just let the music tell me how to sing it—and on the John records, that changes song to song.”
Both Harvey and Parish agree that the new album feels more finished—”less like a sketchbook,” as the latter puts it—than Louse Point, parts of which Harvey says sound incomplete to her ears now. “As writers, we’re able to take things further than we were at that stage,” Parish explains, while Harvey adds that the new songs work almost like short stories: “They have little beginnings, middles, and ends. The music is very sure of itself and knows what it’s doing.”
That evolution has continued as they’ve prepared the music for the road. “So far, as a live, breathing, sweaty band, this thing is really nasty,” says Eric Drew Feldman, a regular PJ Harvey sideman who contributed keyboards to the album and plays in the touring outfit alongside guitarist Giovanni Ferrario and drummer Jean-Marc Butty. “We’re certainly capable of playing louder than the record, unless you’ve got one hell of a stereo.”
After the solo shows Harvey played in support of White Chalk, she’s relishing the opportunity to give singing her full attention again. “When Polly is freed from playing,” says Parish, “what she can do with her voice is stunning.”
“I like to change the way I perform from tour to tour, so this is different from what I was doing before,” Harvey concedes, before adding, “But then, that’s how I am anyway.”
PJ Harvey and John Parish play the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza March 26