On her latest album PJ Harvey goes forward while drawing from the past. Known for musical reinvention (and different visual style) from one album to the next, I Inside the Old Year Dying (out July 7 on Partisan Records) marries folk song structures with ambience, found sounds, noise rock, and electronic touches.
In contrast to the big social themes of previous albums Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project, Harvey lays her creative gaze on her home county Dorset, England. The result is a somewhat low-key collection of musical poetry that may not dazzle, but exudes a singular, almost otherworldly identity and emphasizes what an artistic talent PJ Harvey is.
Formed from 12 poems originally published in her 2022 collection Orlam, I Inside the Old Year Dying presents a young heroine, Ira-Abel, on the cusp between childhood and girlhood. The text of the poems/ songs features regional dialect (hence song titles like “Lwonesome Tonight”). Opening track “Prayer at the Gate” introduces “wyman” (warrior), “wordle” (word) and “drisk” (a fine, wind-driven mist). The song structures also emphasize the songs’ origins. Built around Harvey’s poems, songs like “The Nether-edge” often seem to be building into a new verse or section before they suddenly end. It’s as though a series of sense impressions are washing up on the shore of consciousness before disintegrating into the ether.
With PJ Harvey delving into the place of her past (with a young female protagonist) it might be tempting to look for autobiographical clues. But despite the potential for drawing parallels between a Dorset girl’s coming of age and the writer’s own personal history, it takes a stretch of the imagination to connect the two here. These songs are cloaked in poetic imagery and seasonal metaphors on the cycle of life. Insights of the human condition, rather than the condition of one particular human are what stand out. On “A Noiseless Noise,” and elsewhere, there’s a sense of yearning and searching that feels PJ Harveyesque, “Come away love and leave your wandering …” but these are the kind of deep feelings anyone can identify with.
For all the album’s stylistic quirks, there’s a continuity that generates familiarity. Harvey is joined by long-time collaborators John Parish and producer Flood. In some ways, this shared creative understanding allows the three to push in new directions. Harvey credits Flood as the source of many of the found sounds that fill out the album’s sonic textures. Where there’s traditional percussion, listeners might also hear what could be the creak of a hinge, or some other treasure unearthed from field recordings. In contrast, with the three having worked together for years, there are plenty of familiar touches, like the overtly alt-rock guitars of “Seem an I.” Here and elsewhere, the music feels like it’s harking back to ’90’s acts like Eels, or Beck, or Harvey’s own Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
Radiohead emerges as another reference point. Having previously recorded with vocalist Thom Yorke, Harvey and co. seem to tip their collective cap to the experimental, alternative rock group on tracks like “Autumn Term” (with its fragile, but hopeful piano chords). On “All Souls,” the association is even stronger. Starting out with a rubbery, jelly-like texture that almost feels like being underwater, it’s only in the final moments that the underlying piano cuts through the mix and what sounds like the melody from Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” can be discerned.
Other reference points come via the impressive range of vocal tones that Harvey employs. On “Prayer at the Gate,” her voice evokes Antony (Anohni) and the Johnsons, while the soft back-and-forth with Parish on “A Child’s Question, July” brings to mind Massive Attack’s 3D dueting with Bjork. Through it all, Harvey’s voice is impressive, her frequent falsetto confident, while on “The Nether-edge” as clear as a knife through white chocolate.
Through all of the different voices and the subtle instrumental and tonal variations there is indeed a certain “PJ Harvey-ness.” Much of Harvey’s music over the years has its own particular audio-landscape—much like that of former collaborator and lover Nick Cave. Both have a knack for combining a kind of ancient-seeming folk foundation with a creative wilderness that readily employs noise, dissonance, and modern textures. Closer “A Noiseless Noise” transitions from birdsong and sparse guitars to noisy, jarring passages. Such experimentation is woven throughout the record. A little trip-hop, a dash of alt-rock, a taste of electro ambience, all coated over an acoustic folk foundation and layered with a spacey, wobbly production. These are less sonic explosions than nuanced, dreamy fragments.
A recurring “love me tender” lyrical motif illustrates how Harvey drew inspiration from all directions during the creative process. On “Lwonesome Tonight,” she sings “Are you Elvis? Are you God? Jesus sent to win my trust? Love Me Tender are his words, As I have loved you, so you must… ” As well as highlighting the searching, yearning spirit of the record, the juxtaposition of Elvis and God suggests an equality. Two equally relevant icons and reference points swirling through the ether. Different eras, different ideas, different forms, all coming together, filtered through the record’s own particular lyrical and musical logic. After several years away from releasing music as PJ Harvey, it’s heartening to hear this important artist (the only to ever win the U.K.’s Mercury Prize twice) return with such creative freedom and a record somehow identifiable in its peculiarity.
Order the album from Partisan Records here.