PJ Harvey returns with a thorny folk horror cut in the shape of a poem – a fever-dream forever out of time and place
PJ Harvey’s last album was almost her last. 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project was a scorched earth installation piece set in Kosovo, Afghanistan and America’s worst social housing wards – a violent political broadside sung through tears and rage that completely drained her emotional reserves. Film soundtracks and long-form poetry followed, as did a period of reflection that only ended after a conversation with director Steve McQueen.
“Polly, you have to stop thinking about music like it’s all albums of songs,” he told her. “You’ve got to think about what you love. You love words, you love images and you love music. And you’ve got to think, what can I do with those three things?”
What she can do is I Inside The Old Year Dying – an experimental, improvised flush of feeling and creativity that amounts to the most intimate music Harvey has ever made. Recorded in just three weeks (locked in a studio with John Parish and Flood), the album works as a companion piece to Harvey’s 2022 epic poem,Orlam. Just as dense with natural imagery and weird Dorset dialects, the record deals in magic realism to paint a coming-of-age story as folk horror.
“Who’s inneath The Ooser-Rod?/ Horny devil? Goaty God?/ What is God in ethly guise?/ One or mampus giant eyes?” Harvey chants on ‘A Child’s Question, July’ – speaking lyrics that come with their own glossary in the liner notes. Wrapping stanzas about solitude and nature and a Christ/Elvis/ghost-demon-lover around ambient field recordings of the Dorset woodland, playing I Inside The Old Year Dying out loud feels like it might summon something nasty out of the soil. This is music to burn a wicker man to.
Where ‘Prayer At The Gate’ opens the record with a hymnal, ‘Autumn Term’ hits back like Kid A with actual kids – discordant playground noises set to rising black key synths. Whenever Harvey’s ghostly falsetto cuts through the forest, her post-punk growl returns to throw off the balance.
Strings are plucked on ‘Lwonesome Tonight’. Farm animals are introduced on ‘Seem An I’. Rhythms run separately, against the grain, as the album broods and breaths like an animal. ‘All Souls’ waits right in the middle – two halves of the same song weaving around each other like branches. Harvey counts up in a whisper as they begin to merge and I Inside The Old Year Dying suddenly feels faintly terrifying; an emotional epic that lives in the darkest bits of your subconscious.
“At the first a crimson mist/ At the second sleeplessness/ At the third a broken tryst/ At the fourth, lwonesomenes” returns a haunted voice against a throb that sounds like ‘Pyramid Song’ rewritten for Ari Aster. As the album ends (on a chant of “absence, absence, absence” and the sound of a bumblebee) the nervy, frayed energy remains.
More of an exorcism than an album, I Inside The Old Year Dying is self-indulgent, but in a way that feels like PJ Harvey really doesn’t give a sh*t. This album needed to be made.