PJ Harvey – I Inside the Old Year Dying
PJ Harvey’s tenth studio album is her first in seven years. It marks a reconnection with music following a “heartbreaking” moment of disenchantment with it, after a difficult time with her last tour. So, this record could be said to be the sound of re-enchantment. The new songs “all came out of me in about three weeks,” Harvey says. Produced by long-time collaborators Flood and John Parish, it is “rooted in improvisation: spontaneous performance and ideas, recorded at the moment of their creation.” This is not something you always hear in studio albums, which are often tweaked within an inch of their life. This looser style has more fidelity to the original creative spark.
Based on Harvey’s novel in verse, Orlam, the album tells the story of a nine-year-old girl falling in love with a deity, Wyman-Elvis (Warrior-Elvis). It uses the dialect of Harvey’s native Devon, inspiration from the Elvis songs Love Me Tender and Lonesome Tonight, biblical references to the teachings of John (“As I have loved you, so you must love on another”, John 13:34), the poetry of John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to weave a liminal, immersive world, that is both beguiling and at times disturbing.
The dialect is pastoral and poetic: berries are blood beads, leaves are tree tears, bullheads are tadpoles, and magpies are both chattermags and the devil’s bird. It has the necessary specificity of an ancient world closely observed. Some words are pungent and fun sounding: if you are “twanketen”, you are melancholy. And some are hallucinatory: an Ooser-Rod is described in the glossary as “A devil’s penis, abnormally large.” But of course. How many of those have been encountered for them to have their own nomenclature?
The structure is 12 songs representing the months of the year, although not in order. The lyrics reward close attention. On the opening song, Prayer at the Gate, the child encounters Wyman Elvis for the first time “and teake towards your dark-haired Lord / Forever bleeding with the Word”. On All Souls we hear “And only by her own gooseflesh / Knows she somewhen he’ll return”.
The vocals are a challenging listen, sometimes a disorientating falsetto as on the opening track, sometimes hushed and frail as on the second track, Autumn Term, sometimes deep and brooding as on parts of A Child’s Question, August. The music combines simple guitar parts with occasional off-kilter electronics and drums played without any reverb so they sound immediate. The improvisational nature leaves in the imperfections, which adds to the mood.
It’s a rich and strange record that casts its own particular spell. At first, you’re not sure you want to enter its wild and disorientating world – but by the end, you don’t want to leave.
Image: Steve Gullick
I Inside the Old Year Dying is released on 7th July 2023. For further information or to order the album visit PJ Harvey’s website here.
Watch the video for the single I Inside the Old Year Dying here: