At times meditative, at times so deeply mystical it could soundtrack a Pagan mass, PJ Harvey’s new album is tricky to review – not because there’s any doubt about the sublime quality of the artistry on show, but because of its ghostly, etherial, almost ephemeral nature. It deftly and effortlessly defies easy analysis, and refuses any simplistic attempts at categorisation that would make it far easier to define, or indeed discuss.
There’s no point trying to force your way into this album, no breaking it open like a musical piñata. Instead, you have to allow the music to lead you, to reveal its magic at its own pace. You don’t so much listen to it as breathe it in.
The album can trace its genesis to the quest undertaken with director Ian Rickson and actors Ben Whishaw and Colin Morgan, and their attempts to find a theatrical expression of PJ Harvey’s very highly regarded second book of poetry, Orlam. Whilst ultimately these explorations didn’t quite lead to the intended destination, they instead set in motion a creative endeavour involving long-time collaborators Flood and John Parish that has resulted in a piece of work to rank alongside PJ’s very, very best.
Listening to I Inside the Old Year Dying is sometimes so subtle it feels like following a tiny woodland creature walking through snow with steps so feather-light it leaves no footprints; and yet those very same steps simultaneously have such impact that the air still shimmers long after each track ends.
Added to this is the fact that, given how listening to some tracks feel like wandering through woodland in a fog that repeatedly promises to clear but never quite does, there’s absolutely no doubt that this is an album that, with repeated listening, will grow with you, unveiling more and more of its rewards along the way.
It’s ambitious, it’s theatrical, it’s cinematic. It’s an album that’s redolent with a sense of life and death, of thresholds and liminality, of dreams and wakefulness. It evokes the dark and light sides of nature, and cycles of death and rebirth, in a way more commonly heard in the very best folk music, without being in at all restricted by – or imitative of – that particular form.
After thirty years of working together, it is astounding to hear that PJ Harvey and co have found yet another way of expressing musical excellence without going over old ground. To try to describe the wonder they have created here feels a bit like being a myopic flea tasked with describing what it feels like to ride on the back of a soaring, golden dragon.
I suspect the best I can do is give you a snapshot of where I’ve so far followed their journey of invention and discovery – and perhaps it’s wisest I leave the powerfully evocative poetry to speak for itself . . .
PJ Harvey has described the album as “a resting space, a solace, a comfort, a balm – which feels timely for the times we’re in”. It’s all that, and more.
My still-evolving thoughts on each track below.
Prayer at the Gate
A simple beat and melody matched with vocals verging on keening. Not so much mournful as elegiac, I could imagine it being played before a funeral in New Orleans, where death is acknowledged to be not just inevitable, but an essential part of life. A haunting intro to a haunting album.
Hypnotic chord progressions that sound freshly excavated from a limestone landscape, with voices of children perhaps involved in an outlawed ritual.
The title reflects one of the many facets of PJ Harvey’s creativity, the apparent misspelling no doubt being there for reasons that remain unexplained and tantalisingly just out of reach. The melody itself is so effortlessly ‘right’ it sounds as much found as made, while the instrumentation and vocals are delivered with such a light touch it seems they might float away entirely if they’d not been given just the right hint of ballast from the soft drumbeat. I’d love to hear Johnny Cash cover this one.
Seem an I
Starts as a sort of song-as-seance, with Polly-Jean’s unaccompanied vocal seeming to summon up the tune proper from thin air. Vocals aside, you could almost imagine parts of this being a long lost track from a late-night jam session by The Doors.
Starts out in a fashion that incongruously reminds me of the fact that Flood has also worked with U2, though funnily enough, not on the track the intro to this one initially, if only momentarily, brings to mind – 1983’s Surrender. In any case, it turns in an entirely different direction before long, becoming a tune so stylish and slinky it’s more fetchingly feline than a cat in a dinner jacket. The only possible complaint is that it’s over far too soon.
I Inside the Old Year Dying
Fits as perfectly here as you’d expect, given it’s the title track. On first listen it sounded like (in a different arrangement) it might not have been entirely out of place on another of PJ Harvey’s masterpieces, 2011’s Let England Shake. Listening on headphones, however, reveals something with an intensity that’s slightly different – a quiet roar, if you will.
A haunting aural meditation, with production values so perfectly judged you have to remind yourself that the album was essentially created and recorded live. In many ways an absolute masterclass of how to use technology so subtly and so well that you never lose the human touch, All Souls is rapidly becoming my favourite track on the album; though no doubt others will come to the fore over time – I Inside the Old Year Dying and The Nether-edge in particular is already hard on its heels.
A Child’s Question, August
The song from the album with which I’m most familiar, as BBC Radio 6 Music have been giving it the multiple airings it deserves. Virtually a hymn, it’s perhaps a track that, whilst entirely its own thing, never-the-less provides a sense of being able to see some of the magical musical journey that’s brought PJ Harvey here.
I Inside the Old I Dying
Evokes a nostalgia for an unknown, yet somehow familiar world – one that’s ever present, but eternally just out of reach.
Something about the sustain and echo of this track makes it sound like it could have been recorded in a church. The supplementary vocals from Ben Whishaw offer a fascinating counterpoint, a moving yin to PJ Harvey’s yang.
A Child’s Question, July
Utterly beguiling lo-fi, infused with more than a hint of darkness – as much a spell as a song. If you want a track that sums up what the album is all about, for me, this is it.
A Noiseless Noise
Jangling guitar, feedback, distortion, and sounds of nature marshalled by a militaristic drumbeat.
In summary . . .
It’s sobering to think that, in a slightly different universe, PJ Harvey’s period of reflection and uncertainty following 2017’s tour of The Hope Six Demolition Project might have robbed us of this stunning collection of songs, given how uncertain she was about continuing to writing or even playing music. Just how utterly heartbreaking that feeling must have been for someone who has music in every cell of her body, in her heart, in her very soul, doesn’t bear contemplating.
Thankfully, ten albums in, she has once again done the impossible, and found yet another wondrous and wonderful way of reinventing herself and her music.
We’ve had PJ as rock goddess, PJ as activist, PJ as irresistible seductress; this is PJ as a (mostly) white witch who knows there can be no light without shade, beckoning us into a haunted, mist-shrouded woodland, not telling us what we’ll discover there. There’s more than a hint that to do so is to risk following a willow-the-wisp, a Fata Morgana, a siren whose intentions aren’t entirely clear. On this form, I’d follow her anywhere.