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PJ Harvey – I Inside The Old Year Dying Review

The queen of rock turns her hand to ethereal neofolk and poetry

What does PJ Harvey sound like?

The sensual rock sensation takes on neofolk for a change of pace.

The review of PJ Harvey – I Inside The Old Year Dying

Apparently, PJ Harvey said she wanted to create music unlike anything she’d put out before with her new album. The first album in seven years, ‘I Inside The Old Year Dying’ is ambitious and quite difficult to click with, but there have been hints of neofolk in Harvey’s back catalogue. ‘Who Will Love Me Now’, ‘An Acre of Land’ and plenty of b-sides hinted at the ethereal folk side, but this is ‘White Chalk’ plugged.

photo of PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey – photo by Steve Gullick

Very little of this album has a direct hook. Instead, everything is held atmospherically. ‘Prayer at the Gate’ opens with a distant frequency sound like a theremin or ondes martenot but softer. Drifting in the wind, it’s joined by a skipping rustic beat and faint ethereal guitars. PJ Harvey sings in her upper register with no vocal filters as if she is singing from a pure perspective. The whole thing is atmospheric and gives a deceptive minimalist perspective to the music. In many ways it is, but there is a lot of studio trickery to get that sound finessed. ‘Lwonesome Tonight’ is another great example of simple melodies sitting second to atmosphere and space. It’ll take a few plays to appreciate the meandering, almost drone nature of guitars and industrial hums.

Poetry and Dorset dialect are front and centre in this rustic collection. ‘Seem an I’ opens with farm field recordings and PJ’s voice riffing poetic. Once the guitars and drums shuffle in, it sounds like a laid-back noodling lost piece from ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. Indeed, the more plugged rockier side of the album fits that description perfectly, like the dual-voiced ‘Autum Term’. It’s just more rustic and homey than that album’s design. To say PJ Harvey isn’t breaking new ground would be woefully unfair though. ‘The Nether-edge’ is an example of haunted synth warbles, industrial folk drum loops and ethereal vocal production that’s unlike anything else in her catalogue. Whilst sounding grounded in this minimalistic, simple humble life from a time gone by, this is easily the most experimental album in her catalogue to date.

For all the experiments, the title track is probably the most straightforward and direct. Far too short for its own good, this neofolk anthem gives an electro-acoustic rage that is missing from most of the record. Melodic, pointed and with an edge to it, I would have loved for more of the album to resonate with this kind of urgency and foreboding. The only other track that holds the same cinematic drama is the single ‘I Inside the Old I Dying’ which is a neofolk anthem. The overbled vocal production, the taut atmosphere, the distant church bell toll and general poetic disdain – you can taste it in every note.

The other experiments do have me excited for potential future directions for PJ’s music. ‘All Souls’ reminds me of the rustic misery of ‘Catherine’ but with a lot of vocal trickery thrown in. ‘August’ is built around industrial rhythmic metal clunks and hazy guitars. The backing vocals from Ben Whishaw really add a bitter-sweet element too as he sings ‘Love Me Tender’ from Elvis as an interlude. Guest vocalists pop up across the album and one of my favourites is Colin Morgan. ‘A Child’s Question, July’ has a bodhran beat that allows a back-and-forth between the two vocalists. It’s as close as she’s ever got to Irish or Scottish folk music and after hearing her apocalyptic take on it, I’d be up for an album of that without question. Interestingly, the closing track is the most chaotic. Dissonant guitar jangles against heavy drums and feedback shear makes ‘A Noiseless Noise’ stand out from everything else. In press beforehand she said some of this album is born from improvisation and something tells me this track was one of them.

‘I Inside the Old Year Dying’ is as cryptic as it is atmospheric. If you’ve come here looking for some accessible rock, you will be bitterly disappointed. This is as varied sonically as ‘Is This Desire’, as ethereal as ‘White Chalk’ and as rustic as ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. That is probably a very lazy way to describe the album but when I first listened to this album, a lot of it bounced off me as I was expecting something with teeth. This album isn’t really about having bite and punch. Instead it is about sitting in spaces and letting a feeling sink in. It’ll be a grower but upon each listen, more of the album is clicking and starting to enchant me more. It also makes me more curious about her poetry book ‘Orlem’ too, where a lot of the lyrics came from. It’s great to have PJ Harvey back, exploring the music she wants and evoking emotions again. Let’s hope it doesn’t take seven years to have the conviction and confidence to create again.

Recommended track: I Inside the Old I Dying

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PJ Harvey - I Inside the Old Year Dying



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