Unfortunately for John Parish, fans of multi-talented Polly Jean Harvey often overlook his contributions when collaborating with the songstress. It’s just a simple fact: the singer that gets most of the recognition. Look at Bright Eyes—songwriter Conor Oberst gets all of the laurels while instrumentalist Mike Mogis creates all the visually inspiring soundscapes for his singing counterpart to craft his lyrical magic. Oberst frequently acknowledges Mogis’ role in the band, but for the most part Conor gets all the glory. The same goes for Harvey, whose A Woman a Man Walked By is not a proper solo album. We are so used to Polly doing it all on her own that when we hear singing, we assume it’s 100 percent Harvey, all the time.
Multi-instrumentalist Parish has produced some of the most electrifying atmospheric sonic textures for Polly Jean to create her intimate lyrical rhymes. A Woman is a breathtaking effort with equally sinister and sweet, seductive sounds coming from my favorite siren. Parish brings the good stuff with his searing guitar riffs especially in the explosive opener “Black Hearted Love.” When Polly Jean sings, “I’d like to take you to a place I know…” we, as her devoted audience, are sure to follow her. This is what makes “Black Hearted Love” the perfect introduction as Polly Jean’s vocals invite us to follow them down the rabbit hole beneath this new rhythmic canvas.
Ever since the opening salvo of greatness was struck in her debut single “Sheela-Na-Gig,” we devotees of Polly Jean have been with her every step of the way throughout the progression of her career, as heard in the dynamic Rid of Me, the dramatic Stories from the City, the cinematic Is This Desire, the bare melancholy of Uh Huh Her and the haunting melodies of White Chalk. Parish makes Harvey fans roar with gratefulness by reuniting Polly Jean’s voice with his electric guitar. But A Woman is not just a ten song axe fest; think of this as Harvey and Parish following the Radiohead post-Kid A/Amnesiac method. Starting with Hail to the Thief the band reincorporated the guitar back into their repertoire, but didn’t completely abandon the creative elements of their most recent musical experimentation. Parish gave Harvey minimalist musical textures in songs like “A Soldier,” with Harvey’s ghostly vocal that would have fit perfectly on White Chalk.
One of my favorite songs on A Woman has to be Parish’s Krzysztof Komeda inspired rhythms of “Leaving California.” This song has an eerie Rosemary’s Baby-esque vibe which Komeda famously composed for director Roman Polanski’s classic thriller in 1968. Harvey’s poignant vocal reminds me of Mia Farrow’s character from that same movie. “California” is very cinematic and one of Parish’s musical triumphs. He should be writing music for films. Harvey even claims that his music for a college production of Hamlet is what inspired their first collaboration Dance Hall at Louise Point.
Fans of Harvey’s classic Rid of Me will recognize the “50ft Queenie” shock from Parish’s electric riffs on the climactic title track. Oh how we have missed that lusty seductress spitting vulgar rhymes of yesteryear. Parish then mixes the title cut with a locomotive-inspired instrumental, “The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go.”
A Woman displays the ultimate blend of their strengths: Parish’s melodic muscle and Harvey’s lyrical intensity. “Pig Will Not” is another vintage Harvey track, with howling vocals and Parish supplying a cacophony of backing riffs and rhythms that match her lyrical fire.
The album closes with Harvey’s very beautiful spoken word vocal on “Cracks in the Canvas.” Parish’s simple harmonium and single chords connect with Harvey’s memorable lyric, “Cracks in the canvas look like roads that never end.” And just like that the journey that was A Woman a Man Walked By ends. Within the confines of ten incredible songs, Harvey and Parish have surpassed the promise made with Dance Hall at Louise Point.
A Woman a Man Walked By is an unforgettable exploration with John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey as our guides. If A Woman a Man Walked By is any indication, I look forward to their next musical endeavor where Parish will continue feeding Harvey sonic dangers made eloquent by her lyrical genius. In the guise of these songs, these two artists find the way to constantly connect the passionate rhythms of human nature. The emotional resonance of lust and their revealing loves are brought to life by Polly Jean Harvey and John Parish. The ripples of these melodies will linger long after the cracks on their musical canvas have subsided.