I Inside the Old Year Dying by PJ HarveyRelease date: July 7, 2023
Label: Partisan Records
Last we heard from Polly Jean Harvey was a set of postcards from a trip around the unhappy world. It has been a few years. Now she’s stood out in the lane calling “doodle-oo doo-doo” for us to come walk in the woods. Leave all that noise behind for the whispering of trees. To seek the advice of birds, feel stream stones underfoot and dig down in the soil that raised her. We’ve heard that she’s changed, started speaking in old dialect mixed with bits of Shakespeare and the bible, having visions of Elvis. All it takes is a little patience. Be a mistake not to go.
I Inside the Old Year Dying is PJ Harvey‘s tenth album. Drawn out of the landscape of her youth, it is a wander into a world of her creation, or ‘wordle’ as the Dorset dialect she uses has it, nicely eliding land and language. For as much as it leans on the turn of the seasons and the rhythms of the natural world it inhabits an emotional realm of memory and dream. A territory falling “under Orlam’s reign”. The lyrics are reworked from her poetry book Orlam, released last year as this record was being made. The book’s narrative is stripped away and its lines pared down to open them out. The title track runs to less than thirty words but still carries a vivid charge.
Some will find the language obscure but the effort it asks of you is small. In the very opening line of ‘Prayer at the Gate’ lies the death of childhood and the passing of the year. Then a prompt “So look before and look behind, at life and death all innertwined.” Universal themes of the search for meaning, for love, for comfort in the short time we have play out through a magic realist mythology of place. An entranced child searches the fields for spirit Elvis, carrying his beloved peanut butter and banana sandwiches in her satchel like a sacrament. It invokes folklore without simply gathering up an armful of it and the music avoids trad song structures to sketch mood and place with delicate layers of found sounds and sparse instrumentation.
Once again she brings us something new that grows naturally from what came before. In the world of her previous music then, it is a turn away from the reportage and wide screen of the last couple of albums back towards the intimate minimalism of White Chalk, only less claustrophobic. Its yearning and uncertainty recalls Is This Desire?, while its ambiguous layered time and compositional approach refine ideas from Let England Shake. As the album’s initial strangeness recedes these connections are slowly revealed. I Inside the Old Year Dying is a complete and singular thing possessed of its own arcane vision. Drawing you quickly in, like the woods themselves it is dark and mysterious, beautiful and consoling. It really feels like a record only Polly Harvey could make, and probably not before now.