Though occasionally (and incorrectly) lumped in with the riot grrrls of the mid-'90s, PJ Harvey never harnessed her fury to a political agenda—her most savage songs transcended the riot grrrls' earnest itinerary of sexual harassment, eating disorders, and incipient lesbian crushes. Perhaps that's why, while the big names in riot grrrl have mostly abandoned their ire for disco beats, maternity, and/or soulful solo albums about their dogs (I'm looking at you, Kaia Wilson), Harvey is still shrieking like it's 1997 on her newest album, A Woman a Man Walked By, co-written with longtime collaborator John Parish.
Harvey's last album, 2007's piano-driven White Chalk, represents some of the most cohesive and precise songwriting of Harvey's career. By contrast, A Woman a Man Walked By is a varied, scattershot offering. Parish wrote all of the music here, with lyrics and vocals by Harvey; the record as a whole serves largely as a showcase for Harvey's vocal experimentation.
In the jittery schoolyard countdown "Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen," a twangy intro builds to the disturbing, panted refrain "There is no laughter in the garden." In "Leaving California," she keens with a need to leave the suffocating state, while plinking carnival-esque keyboards seem to mock her desperation. It's an unusually varied output, though there are a couple songs where Harvey really sounds like herself—the opening track, "Black Hearted Love," is expansive and bitter and wouldn't have felt out of place on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, while the languorous lament of "Passionless, Pointless" is vintage Harvey.
It's the album's worst tracks that are its most memorable, however. The unmitigated contempt of the title track is staggering: It's impossible to imagine another contemporary songwriter penning a vitriolic send-up of a cowardly man with "chicken liver balls" and a "chicken liver spleen," gutturally hollering "I want his fucking ass." It's a raging, furious song—and sure, not a particularly good one, but its mere existence is reassuring. Harvey might be not be succeeding entirely on a musical level, but she's not compromising, either.