I Inside the Old Year Dying by PJ Harvey. Partisan Records, 12 tracks. 2023.
PJ Harvey has a way of slipping right through your fingers. For the last thirty years, the English singer-songwriter has made a career out of reinvention, evading tidy genre and career categories as she has fleshed out one of the deepest and most rewarding catalogs in modern rock music.
This openness to transformation is the engine of her new album, I Inside the Old Year Dying. On twelve dusky folk songs, Harvey sings of the fluid interzone between life and death, modern life and the ancient past of England’s West Country, in a voice as likely to whisper and break as to seduce or soothe. I Inside was recorded with longtime collaborators John Parish and Flood, and this familiarity left the group free to improvise, turning Harvey’s bare demos into moody pieces bursting with detail—distorted cymbal washes, squelching synthesizers, clattering drums—and anchored by some of her most beautiful melodies. It sounds very little like what’s come before, which is also to say, it sounds like PJ Harvey.
Polly Jean Harvey was born in 1969, in rural Dorset. As a child she learned guitar and saxophone, and briefly attended a visual arts course at Yeovil College. In the early 1990s, she released a pair of vicious grunge albums with the PJ Harvey Trio, breaking through to the mainstream with 1995’s To Bring You My Love. Steeped in the blues and assorted Americana, the album set the template for Harvey’s rock-star run. Preferring the bottom of her range, on these albums her voice gutters and growls, embroidering Americana themes—unfaithful lovers, unfortunate mothers, lots of misfortune going down on the river’s edge—with a hard erotic edge. The title track of To Bring You My Love is both promise and curse, the sound of a woman whose desires have dragged her through a hell of desert plains and mountain peaks—a love so overpowering it has literally placed her apart from humanity. Harvey’s howling vocal shatters against the edge of the track, breaking up in your headphones from the force of her passion.
Harvey is hardly the first Brit to mine America for material or to lean on the blues for instant gravitas. But hers has never been a straightforward apprenticeship. 1998’s Is This Desire? digs into many of the same themes, but coats them in a mangy electronic fur, embracing booming breakbeats and whisper-stark samples. At the same time, Harvey’s voice begins to soften, as if all the musical clatter had cleared a space for greater intimacy. “Catherine” is told from the perspective of a spurned lover, lost in booze and self-hatred, and yet it’s one of her most purely beautiful performances. “’Til the light shines on me / I damn to hell every second you breathe,” she sings, exhaling pure spite. Yet as the song winds down and she croons that woman’s name you can in her voice that this is in fact a love story.
These were exciting, successful years for Harvey, and turned out many of her best songs. Each feels like an elaboration of that rock star persona, and even 2000’s gleaming Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea does not feel so far removed from her grunge beginnings. Harvey hangs out in the lower half of her range, and her engagement is with the music of the moment, blending trip hop and drum-and-bass into what are, ultimately, radio-friendly rock tunes. I’m not complaining; the music is ravishing, unimpeachable. Yet let Is This Desire? flow into her recent material and you’ll get whiplash.
Since 2007, Harvey has been determined to never let two albums sound alike, and the results have been extraordinary. She has embraced gothic Victorian folk and skronking jazz, allowed samples to take over mid-song, and even made an album on the autoharp. Each of these albums sounds like a world in itself, a fully realized and self-enclosed system, and it’s only when played back-to-back with her 1990s run that you recognize how dramatically Harvey has transformed herself. Even as their music has changed, former collaborators like Thom Yorke and Nick Cave still basically sound like themselves. Harvey’s true predecessor is David Bowie, and not only because of their mutual fondness for the saxophone. Both musicians change their personae from album to album, allowing for creative revolutions. Both from time to time made a habit of stepping away from the spotlight, returning with a new sound, look, and creative partners. Harvey even began ceding occasional solo vocal duties to her long-term collaborator Parish, allowing his keen baritone to fill out the lower end of the material while her own voice floats in a vulnerable upper register, injecting a genuine fragility only intermittently present in her muscular early material.
Take my favorite of her albums, 2011’s Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake. Harvey’s lyrics are largely about the First World War, full of harrowing images of shattered landscapes and broken bodies. Yet this is hardly Iron Maiden. The music is jaunty, bobbing along to the beat of Mick Harvey’s swinging drum work, PJ’s voice trilling overhead. It’s an album of space and light, of clapping tambourines and modest guitar tones, so that even ominous couplets like “What is the glorious fruit of our land? / Its fruit is orphaned children” have a discomfiting, singsong quality. In embracing oddball instruments like the autoharp, Harvey defamiliarizes expected sounds, making space for reggae rhythms to sidle in from the sides. When a sample of Winston “Niney” Holness’s song “Blood & Fire” hijacks the spacey “Written on the Forehead,” a new tension enters the tune, the original’s command to “Let it burn, burn, burn” made newly frightening in Harvey’s mouth. Even now, on my umpteenth listen, the album surprises me, revealing new details and textures hiding off in the margins. It sounds like no one, not even Harvey herself.
In the seven years since 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey has devoted herself to seemingly everything but writing new PJ Harvey songs. She scored a handful of television shows, released the demos for all of her albums, put out a massive, fifty-nine-song B-side compilation, left her long-time label Island Records, and even put out the book-length poem Orlam. According to the press notes for I Inside, she felt not just blocked but so alienated from her own creative process that she considered dropping out of music altogether, a loss she describes as heartbreaking. “Am I still any good?” she recalled to the Guardian. “Have I still got it?”
Perhaps it helped to return to those demos. Back in the nineties, Harvey used her four-track demos as a template, getting down the rough idea before polishing it up in the studio. The Stories from the City demos may be simpler than their lush final counterparts, but, structurally, the songs are all essentially the same. There’s a clear leap from one to the next. 2004’s self-produced Uh Huh Her began to collapse the distinction, and by Let England Shake Harvey was importing home-recorded sounds like the dum dum dumduming tom tom at the start of “The Last Living Rose” straight onto the album tracks, incorporating every part of the creative process into the published work. Rather than a fixed, final product, we have something more fluid, a document of an ongoing process, more akin to painting or sculpture than a typical rock album. She even recorded Hope Six in a glassed-in room at London’s Somerset House for any visitor to watch.
A similar approach appears to have brought Harvey out of her funk. With I Inside, she wrote the basic songs quickly and then built them out with Parish and Flood over five weeks in a North London studio. The group tracked live, improvising frequently and experimenting with all manner of instruments and new techniques. Flood asked Harvey to record vocal tracks with her eyes closed so that she wouldn’t know where the mic was.
While musically a folk record, the acoustic instruments have a harsh, close-mic’d quality, drumheads rattling and picks scraping across strings. The title track focuses around a series of frantic chords, nylon strings hits so hard they scream out. Meanwhile, electronic beats skitter and pop at the edges of the track, but softly, as if draped with a cloth. Where once Harvey’s electric guitars screamed, now they whisper and jangle. The richly textured result feels warm without clinging to the skin, a collage of humming drones, muffled drum hits, and muted keys.
By contrast, Harvey’s singing has never sounded so thin or ragged; this is a compliment. Pushed by her producer to sound like anyone other than herself, she climbs to the tinny top of her range, rising so high above the music she seems ready to break free, or just break. Yet there’s also a grainy texture to the recording, not angelic but earthy. It’s a startling sound, and unsettles what we might expect from a seemingly straightforward folk song like “I Inside the Old I Dying,” lending the whole thing a slightly ghostly quality, as if we were listening in on the singing of a sheela-na-gig.
This experimentation is grounded in Harvey’s native Dorset, with its ancient landmarks and twisted windbreaks and thorny local dialect. The lyrics, adapted from Orlam, are full of animals and plants: “Old I” alludes to beech and ash trees, searches for “frogs and toads in lagwood holes,” and declares that its narrator will “unray” herself—a Cornish word for undress—for Wyman, a sort of Green Man-ish figure who across the album comes to symbolize the porous border between life and death.
All of this coalesces into one of the better runs in Harvey’s discography, beginning with the title track and extending to the tenth track, “August,” a tender request for love that comes with the knowledge that it like all things will soon pass. “All of us / cross o’er t’other side,” Harvey sings, while a heavily treated electric guitar arpeggiates in the deep background. Everything floats, adrift in a muggy evening haze. Better still is “All Souls,” a spectral piano dirge which lies, suppressed, under a layer of muffled effects before gradually opening up into an off-kilter ballad, as poignant as anything Harvey has ever written. It calls back to the murky eclecticism of Is This Desire?, but in a more intimate, vulnerable key.
I’ve been writing about music for long enough to know that the press prefers a small handful of narratives from our musicians. When they’re young, we want brash statements; when they’re old, magisterial reconsiderations; and when they return from a break, we want bold reinventions, proof the artist is still growing and keeping pace with the changes around them.
We have a much harder time with the mid-career artist, whose career is neither new nor old but a thing under construction. I Inside calls to mind recent records like Shearwater’s The Great Awakening. Both document an artist’s process during a moment of creative expansion, pushing outward from established culture into unknown territory. Such works can feel insular, cut off from the world, but with time we often recognize them as expressions of a deep artistic need, as a means of pursuing their desires and making the music they want to make. This might not grab headlines or speak to the moment, but it is never less than interesting. On I Inside the results are not always finely tuned, and some songs cut deeper than others. Yet they all feel like conversations with the possible, applying the old impulses to new sounds, tools, and forms. Seen this way, I Inside is not such a departure for Harvey after all. She has painted yet another portrait of the artist as shapeshifter, of a woman ever in motion.