Polly Jean Harvey isn't exactly a restless creative spirit, given the consistency of her themes and the familiar emotional landscape of her songs. Nevertheless, she's been changing things up from the very beginning, starting with the shift from her near-perfect debut Dry to the bone-rattling game-changer Rid of Me and on through any other number of career zigs and zags, some more successful than others. Since disbanding her original trio, but especially since her breakout To Bring You My Love, Harvey has lost some of her intense focus, leading her to branch out to a tandem-billed collaboration in 1996 with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point, and continuing up through her harrowing hey-why-not-piano? album White Chalk. Given all the ups and downs, perhaps it makes sense that Harvey should return to favored catalyst Parish for another collaborative go-round. Granted, Parish has been collaborating with Harvey as a producer and musician for years, even before Dry, but his co-billed discs with her offer him much more input, particularly considering that he's working with one of the music world's more imposing auteurs.
As with their previous shared project, Parish wrote all of the music and played most of the instruments on A Woman a Man Walked By, leaving Harvey to the lyrics and singing. Harvey has said that her collaborations with Parish give her the freedom to push into new places, and there is a sense of exploration here as she fits her words to the shapes of his songs. You can detect Harvey taking the chance to stretch, if not necessarily as a lyricist, then certainly as a singer. On the conventional opener "Black Hearted Love", she sounds like she's singing from a different sonic plane than Parish's backing track, but she takes advantage of that distance by working the reverb-draped space for maximum drama. "Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen" is weirder, a locked-in-the-basement freak cousin to Zeppelin's folkier offerings, with Harvey's wails, pants, and whispers instilling the track with the right degree of crazy. On "Leaving California", she pushes her soprano to awkward heights, coming close to the unsettling falsetto drummer Rob Ellis used to provide.
Elsewhere, in "April", Harvey twists her voice into a contorted croak, and punctuating the title track's breathless narrative is Harvey's snarled threat "Stick it up your fucking ass." It's the must unhinged we've heard her since she demanded "Who the fuck?" on Uh Huh Her, even if here she sounds like she's having some twisted fun (Albini would be proud). Later Harvey relishes the chance to howl some more on "Pig Will Not"; if these aren't particularly pleasant listening experiences, they do make the lovely closer "Cracks in the Canvas" that much prettier in comparison.
With all these divergent sides of Harvey on display, the disc in a sense amounts to an audition reel full of character studies, each delivered with method brio. Yet Harvey's always played the line between the personal and the persona close to her vest, much to the frustration of armchair psychologists everywhere. So how much of a stretch A Woman actually is, only she knows for sure ("The Soldier", for example, would have been a boon to White Chalk). What's more, by this point in her career Harvey, has wandered so far from her roots that if