Unrecognisable To Myself: I Inside the Old Year Dying By PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey’s tenth album marks a heroic continuation of form – and an intimate, internal refrain. Will Ainsley tracks this elusive album through the drisk

The artistic biography of Ludwig Van Beethoven is typically split into three distinct periods: early, middle (or ‘heroic’), and late. In his early period, the composer drew on Mozart, Haydn, and Bach’s influence, beginning to experiment with form while staying within the boundaries of convention. During his decade-long heroic period (1802–1812), though, Beethoven made powerful, tempestuous, high-concept Sturm und Drang such as Symphony No. 3 (known as the Eroica symphony), a work based around ideas of freedom and equality. Finally, the late period found him in a more philosophical mode – that boundary-breaking verve remained, but the resulting music was cut with contemplation.

Although PJ Harvey’s discography is too unruly to be fully anatomised by this framework, her new album, I Inside the Old Year Dying, still embodies many qualities of late style. Lacking the propulsive confidence found in Stories From The City Stories From The Sea, the charged, war film quality of Let England Shake, or even the keening, strident quality of White Chalk (the closest thing it sonically resembles), this tenth LP finds its stimulus not in broad concepts or thrusting power but – much like Beethoven after 1812 – their antitheses: quiet reflection, fragmentation, and mystery.

And it could have all been so different. Before the writing and release of I Inside the Old Year Dying, Harvey almost gave up making music entirely. This is not surprising given the research and fieldwork involved in her previous two albums, The Hope Six Demolition Project and Let England Shake. Harvey visited the places she wrote about (Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C.), interviewed people, and read testimonies from civilians and soldiers. Perhaps her subsequent aversion to making more music was a worry that albums thereafter must be rigorously, laboriously conceptual. Soundtrack work followed, then a novel-in-verse called Orlam. Eventually, though, the songs (partly inspired by Orlam) materialised, albeit without the operose work of the preceding albums. It’s telling that, whereas The Hope Six Demolition Project and Let England Shake both took several years to write, I Inside the Old Year Dying “all came out … in about three weeks”. As Harvey sings in the album opener, ‘Prayer at The Gate’, “All souls under Orlam’s reign made passage for the born again”.

The result is a loose, nimble work of neo-folk that pokes its head into desert blues, experimental rock, and country, then has a good nose around. It manages to sound both mediaeval and futuristic, with big hollow kick drums booming underneath queasy loops and staticky textures, the tales of “milchi seeps heady in the meadows” ringing over boinging, squelching electronics. At a push, we might term this intelligent folk dance music. Or acid alehouse. Or… breakwheat? Field recordings (courtesy of Adam Bartlett) and strange, blustery frequencies also contribute to the mulch and oomska of the music (helped in no small part by Harvey’s creative partnership with Flood and John Parish, who provided production and additional instrumentation). The lived-in sogginess of this music seems to be a way of accessing hitherto-siloed wells of emotion and intensity. Thrumming thickets of rhythm in ‘I Inside the Old I Dying’ evoke perfectly the movement through the forest described in the lyrics, while on ‘Prayer At The Gate’, the audible rushes of breath are of equal importance to the accompanying pained vocalisations.

In an episode of the excellent Weird Studies podcast, Professor Phil Ford remarks on how traces of Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ work still remain in his later style “like the rings of a tree remain as a mark of its growth and process”. These reminders are like muscle memory in Harvey’s case – her vocal delivery can still leave you with a bruised shin, and she’s never far from creating a vivid lyrical image that will stay with you for days, like “Zun’s a feeble lamp / O’er leery land” (‘zun’ means ‘sun’, and ‘leery’ means ‘hungry’ in the Dorset dialect); ‘A Noiseless Noise’ could have been rejected for Rid of Me for being too post-rocky and spasmodic. The influence of Captain Beefheart is still felt, but more in the shards of melodic beauty that punctuate his later work than the churned-up abstraction of his middle period.

This all said, moans, squalls, audible double-tracking, and strange electronic vocal treatments disturb the idea of Harvey’s words being, if not the focus, then the top layer. She even sounds like a different person in ‘All Souls’ (deeper, huskier, perhaps an older avatar of the 50ft queenie she embodied in 1993). Taken together, it’s almost as if this music – in contrast to previous albums – is directed inwards, less a prophet addressing a crowd, more a song sung to oneself. Perhaps I Inside the Old Year Dying was made by Polly Jean, rather than PJ – the heavy use of Dorset dialect seems to indicate this, with words like ‘drisk’ (wind-driven mist), ‘eth’ (earth), and ‘bwoneyard’ (graveyard) salting every song. Note that “doo doo-doo doo” vocalisation on album opener ‘Prayer At The Gate’ – whether this is a placeholder lyric that simply stayed, or a chant used because it sounds appropriately eldritch, or something only Harvey understands, it’s entirely on her terms. Where once Harvey reached out to the listener, here, the listener must reach out to Harvey.

The less conceptual approach gives Harvey room to skirt, almost impishly, between styles, genres, ages, using anachronism, lyrical shifts, and unpredictable instrument allegiances. ‘Seem an I’ includes a musical cold open with a lyrical passage redolent of a grisly James Herriot chapter retold in Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole, before a slinky, Real Gone-era Tom Waits groove kicks in, complete with a delightfully wobbly synth part. ‘All Souls’ could be a long-lost Frank Ocean or Bon Iver backing track, all underwater keyboard chords and lustrous production. Contrasting imagery is occasionally pressed together cheek by jowl (again, that mediaeval/futuristic combination). “Pepsi fizz / Peanut-and-banana sandwiches” follows “Soldier king on Maundy day”. The familiarity of the reference to ‘Love Me Tender’ contrasts with the abstractions of “Death of zummer, death of play”.

Harvey stated that the songs in I Inside the Old Year Dying are all based around “something really small… one person, one wood, a village”. Rather than imposing a smaller conceptual aperture, these mini-themes often seem so loose that the songs concertina outwards, barely containing the images that flit through, like the “Femboys in the forest [finding] figs of foul freedom”, or the way Elvis is apostrophised as a folkloric god figure. That the title track is the shortest song on the album seems also suggestive of thematic instability. The centre cannot hold, nor should it.

Throughout her career, PJ Harvey has always seemed in a rush to get somewhere. The iconic video for 2000’s ‘Good Fortune’ has her striding purposefully through the streets of New York, lyrics are filled with insistency, like “just you stop your screaming”, “I’ll tell you my name”, and, unforgettably, “Robert De Niro, sit on my face”. She’s fond of including time signatures that mean musical passages short out before you expect them to (such as in ‘Let England Shake’, ‘Dress’, and ‘Rub ‘Til It Bleeds’). Unlike Beethoven (who she has cited as an influence), Harvey could return to the verve of her early or middle period, or at least an incarnation of it. (The rings of that tree are never going away, after all.) Her shape-shifting is, as many have pointed out, on a par with the likes of David Bowie, and there’s every chance that Harvey returns in six years with a prophetic concept album about AI, or the Russia-Ukraine war – in a 2022 interview with Rolling Stone, Harvey describes Orlam, the impetus behind this album, as “somewhere to sort of gather my energies again”. And though she may rush on still, I Inside the Old Year Dying stands as a kind of low tide moment in Harvey’s discography, a place of stillness and quiet power that’s every bit as heroic as what came before.

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