It begins ambiguously. Black Hearted Love is renaissance PJ Harvey, a foursquare-but-syncopated rocking number that starts with a rich-but-anguished added-sixth chord and whose title is commensurately sweet-n-sour. Orchestrally the song is a throwback to Dance Hall and PJ's eponymous albums either side of it. The music rather more off-centre though and will characterise other later tracks of this album.
*the video of Black Hearted Love is also out, directed by YBA aristocracy Jake and Dinos Chapman - whilst it has some lovely photography it's not earth shatteringly original.
So to the rest of the album. 16,15,14 opens with an increasingly Led Zeppelinesque riff on a banjo and insistence. Repetition and insistence. For all Polly has rendered this a hide-n-seek episode with her opening lyrics, it quickly becomes a clearly-in-memory episode of pubescent epiphany. She has even taken the step of publishing the vocalising as 'oh, oh, oh' (etc.) in the liner notes.
This is Polly Harvey's aesthetic manor. It's possible that Daniel has taken advantage of Erika - there's a drama and threat with no laughter in a rainswept garden where the trees shake. But there's no clear sense of transgression; no clear idea of someone hurt or wronged, at least not right there and then. The retrospective regret is dead-eyed, unaccusing, forensic. It's classic Polly - erotic and dangerous, in moral terms stubbornly blank.
In Leaving California there's more American folk allusion with the saloon bar piano tremolo and metallic rhythm guitar. A synthetic haze descends on the production of the track as Polly starts to point her song. This is the opposite of Joni Mitchell's lovesong, blues of longing for the sunshine state sung from a Bleecker Street cafe or a European commune. This is a warped recreation of the old west (which chimes nicely with the recycled Victoriana styling that went with White Chalk, whence the piano and high, febrile vocal lines) - I think it's time to leave heralds an abrupt end. She's off.
So we arrive at one of the highlights of the disc. The Chair, like the best Pollyparish amalgams is a stream-of-consciousness that suggests a backstory, a drama. The de-centred harmony of Black Hearted Love is the DNA of this, once again, foursquare but rhythmically off-kilter track. It's like the chair which has prompted the song has an uneven .
Suddenly 16, 15, 14 becomes fissiparous. Are Erika and Daniel children playing making emotionally tempestuous discoveries about themselves? Or is Erika the mother, looking back at her helplessness at losing her child, transmuting the experience into a nightmare scenario, unable to turn to find him by the rules of the game, but trapped in the perpetual countdown, dictated by the rhythm of the song and the cyclical loop of the recurrent chorus. The sexual danger remains though. This is the Stygian glower of the Henry James of The Turn of The Screw: sex, childhood, the occult, death, unspoken and unspeakable moral transgression.
So to the reactive centre of the album, April and A Woman.../The Crow Knows Where. April is an irritating number, with an annoyingly unmodulated organ pattern, synthetic and demanding. Coherent only in patches, this stream-of-consciousness song is a delirious preamble to the crazed A Woman... which is the now statutory hysterique which PJ seems to need to fill out her albums. To me this is a raucous low-point of the album. It doesn't have the bite of Who The Fuck? from Uh Huh Her or similar predecessors. It's doubly crazy as it segues into a fun sequence of highly original carnival cinematique. The harmonic de-centring is maintained and we are dragged back into the consciousness of the album's trajectory.
If I couldn't help feeling that A Woman... failed where Portishead succeeded with the central tracks of Third (I know Portishead were pursuing an outward looking, existentially challenged post-punk industrial re-hash and that PJ is more introverted, more personal than that but the point stands when effectiveness is the aesthetic barometer) then the ukulele backed track The Soldier is at least as triumphant as Deep Water. Fragile and pointilist (with the tight-sounding plucked ukulele) Polly sounds like she's actually walking across the bones she's singing about, damaging and damaged.
Pig Will Not is the ingenuous expressionist stomper that A Woman... failed to be (inspired by Charles Baudelaire's 'The Rebel' the liner notes solemnly inform you). PJ Harvey is at her best when she's in the moment, when there's no sense of calculation.
Passionless, Pointless is perfumed with media. The early added-chord sequence sounds like a distorted sample from an 80s children's TV show. A lovesong, opulent, sensually omnipresent but fading. The perfect lead into the album's coda, Cracks in the Canvas a spoken - lucid - resolution to the pain, loss and confusion both hidden away and on show.
A Woman A Man Walked By is a terrific album, echt-PJ Harvey and all the better for a collaborative work. It's not astonishingly new but I think it fulfils their ambition not to repeat themselves. It's an old-school album as well, better played in one from top to toe.