Album Reviews

PJ Harvey – I Inside The Old Year Dying

(Partisan) UK release date: 7 July 2023

The two-time Mercury winner’s 10th album takes a left turn, setting the Dorset singer’s poems to music in confounding, unorthodox yet reputation-enhancing style

PJ Harvey - I Inside The New Year Dying PJ Harvey has undergone various creative evolutions and artistic transformations over the course of her thirty year career but it’s fair to say that few will rival the shift that comes with 10th album I Inside The Old Year Dying. Written and recorded over the space of three weeks at Battery Studios in North West London with long time collaborator John Parish and producer Flood, it features 12 tracks based on her 2022 collection of poetry Orlam that see her swing somewhat dramatically away from the sounds of her last two solo studio albums, 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project and 2011’s Let England Shake.

These albums themselves had involved something of a leap for the Dorset based singer-songwriter, moving her towards a fully consolidated, critically acclaimed mainstream position where issues like warfare, colonialism and foreign policy were addressed in accomplished and serious fashion. Ahead of the release of this new album Harvey confessed to finding herself at something of a crossroads in terms of how to proceed, to the extent where she even started to doubt if she still had a connection to music. “I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, if I wanted to carry on writing albums and playing, or if it was time for a change in my life,” she admitted.

This element of uncertainty seems to find its way into the music which is defined by a strange sense of detachment and isolation, very much occupying its own space. It takes some time to adjust to the new aesthetic. The hermit-like opening track Prayer At The Gate showcases the minimalist instrumentation and reduced pace that runs through the album. Autumn Term is another low-lying curiosity, and Lwonesome Tonight is similarly sparse, skeletal and rustic. Like much of the album it feels rooted in the natural world, both earthy and human. It’s undoubtedly a left turn, and at times it even feels a bit ‘Polly Jean goes medieval’. 

Yet, within the eerie otherness signs begin to emerge that this might not be the act of self-sabotage that the early stages suggest. Seem An I is closest to her recent work, her voice momentarily returning to the authoritative tone we’ve become used to. It also is representative of the unusual language and titles found on the album. She sings of “bedraggled angels, blethered across Eleven Acres” and includes other phrases that seem directly plucked from olde English. 

The Nether-edge sounds spectral and thin, seeing her sing obtusely of “Femboys in the forest find figs of foul freedom,” and “Quaterevil takes a wife, chilver meets her maker”. On paper such words may appear unfathomable and even nonsensical, but in their musical setting they add to the peculiar, unknowable atmosphere that hangs over the album. All Souls meanwhile is the product of studio improvisation and field recordings, and the title track is another withdrawn, introspective offering but one that draws you inwards, keen to unravel the mystery. Tracks like these will certainly make for intriguing live performances. A Child’s Question, August is the stand out moment on the album, the most immediate and cohesive articulation of this unexpected change of direction. It’s arguably the one track here that should comfortably sit alongside her previous episodes of greatness.

I Inside The Old Year Dying might be a bit of a test for those expecting a continuation of her former glories. It’s undoubtedly a confounding and unorthodox piece of work, but its artistic integrity and single-mindedness still manages to ensure PJ Harvey somehow comes out of it with her reputation enhanced.

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