Maybe the only way to approach a concept album such as PJ Harvey’s I Inside the Old Year Dying is personally. I have had my ups and downs with her since I first encountered the single “Sheela-Na-Gig” in the mid ’90s and then her first complete album, Dry.
Dry came from left of field for me at a time when I was listening to Riot Grrrl music, along with my usual infusion of punk, thrash, metal and classical. “Sheela-Na-Gig” struck me as a song with something of the feminist “fuck you” ironies of Riot Grrrl along with an almost folk sensibility to the chthonic. It was and is a clever song.
Harvey also has the ability to deeply disturb, as in “Down by the Water” from her third album, To Bring You My Love (1995), in which we enter the mind of a woman who has drowned her daughter. It has one of the most haunting refrains in alternative music: “Little fish, big fish swimming in the water / Come back here, man, gimme my daughter”. She was overwhelmingly unique.
I always considered her work deeply poetic. But that’s to ignore the sublime sensibility that can morph lyric with hook and riff. PJ Harvey has a knack of bringing great complexity to a seemingly simple arrangement. One of the best examples of this across her oeuvre can be heard in the movement between chorus and storyline in the deconstructive feminist class “Dress”, also from Dry. And with a voice range that goes from contralto to the play of Yoko Ono-style voice experiments, she can counterpoint herself, make sudden leaps and turn a song quickly – consider “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore”.
Harvey works with collaborators and friends in continuously innovative ways, such as her brilliant work with Josh Homme during The Desert Sessions recordings, where even on the Queens of the Stone Age song “I Wanna Make it Wit’ Chu” her minimalist accompaniment brings a whole new resonance to the song. Her interaction with Nick Cave is legendary, and she has worked with a host of musicians who have enriched her sound. I am thinking in particular of the drummer Rob Ellis, bassist/multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, and the inimitable John Parish, whom Harvey sees as a “soul brother”. You can sense him in so many songs over recent decades, and in this new album, along with their fellow producer Flood, he is omnipresent.
One other collaborator is worth mentioning, which brings this into the personal because he also served as my editor at Picador for many years: the Scottish poet Don Paterson. Paterson mentored Harvey’s poetry writing for three years, and is the John Parish to Orlam, Harvey’s recent long poem of voices in Dorset dialect, which in many ways she reconstructs from both the familiar – it’s where she grew up connected with a family farming business – and the literary, especially the 19th-century regional poet William Barnes and his remarkable Poems of Rural Life, in the Dorset Dialect (1844).
Orlam is a remarkable work – mysterious and immersive, rich in folklore and farming, with a concise and dense use of language, whether it’s in the vernacular version – a construct, rather than an active representation of spoken language – or the “plain English” accompanying text. As others have noted, it’s got a feel of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, but it’s nothing like it as well. For me, there’s more of the northerner Tom Pickard’s constructions of localisms and slang, and the poetry of Calder Valley’s Michael Haslam, than Thomas.
Harvey’s new album in many ways is a direct engagement with Orlam, and includes a set of departures that could maybe only take place with musical accompaniment. In Orlam we have song-poems that are to be “sung to the tune of”, and on the album we begin with the haunting opening text of Orlam, “Prayer at the Gate”.
Harvey’s localised world view began to bother me when she defended fox-hunting and the castration of lambs. Anyone who has been propagandised by farm life will know this happens in a matter-of-fact way, but as we move through life I would hope we develop some critical distance from its cruelty. Harvey seems to defend this mode of life as a preservation of place and even, by association, its language. We all construct versions of place in making art but doing so carries a moral weight. In the blood and guts of a place are horror and beauty, as well as a set of deep political implications about farming, industry, seasons, climate change, our grim realities.
On first listening I did not connect with I Inside the Old Year Dying – I found it unconvincing, brittle, even a little twee here and there, and there seemed to be a frequent disconnect between the music and the lyrics. It seemed like offcuts to Orlam. I found it fascinating that words that carry so much weight on the page should suffer when placed with the music that surely at least subconsciously echoed when poems – and later songs for the album – were being composed.
I listen again and the opening song-poem’s high-pitched lament actually starts to haunt me, get inside me... the introduced “doo doo” intervals give breathing space that bristles with sublimity. And the letting the voice become the poem disconnected from the word itself ... yes, that’s incantation, that’s prayer, and a spell as well. Okay, I get it. Maybe I have never really got here, and now I am. Weird! And the lyrics sing-haunt, such as with “Autumn Term”, which is almost filmic in its gentle but sharp instrumentation playing off the language: “I ascend three steps to hell. / The school bus heaves up the hill / The sloey spears on Witches Mead / cussed, Come and lean on these!”
There’s a sliver of Maddy Prior from Steeleye Span in some of the songs, but with the power intentionally sucked out – not to the point of whimsy but to a weird essence. Guitar touches words, percussion like stepping stones the lyrics step across, incantation of a Christian-pagan syncretism. Love and sex are both troubled, deliverance is troubled, happiness is sad, rumination is opening to pain. By “Seem an I” I am getting it – the “bedraggled angels” can’t be said any other way and the song has a sub-powerful lilt and swing – it’s mesmerising. There’s a narrative but a tangential one much like the calendar months of Orlam. Similar, but not the same. Better? No, but different.
Synth, piano, guitars, drums and more fuse in amalgams that are sonorous and risky. “The Nether-edge” with its “chalky children” is also addictive. They are not brittle, they are like blossom in mud squelching between the toes. “I Inside the Old Year Dying” is a parsing of passing away into the next – a joiner but a logical one. “All Souls” hesitantly takes us into the thin reeds of a voicing but the language is rich: “Only in a scrid of flesh / Hooked upon the hart’s-tongue fern”. “A Child’s Question, August” is immediately a Harvey signature with that haunting – a word used a lot around her work, for good reason – lilting voice. It’s visceral stuff.
The sound clashes in “A Noiseless Noise”, which finishes the album, are extensions of the language. The field recordings of Adam “Cecil” Bartlett imbue the song with narratorial-participatory shifts ... until we tilt back and forth into “Go home now love, leave your wandering”. I hope Harvey never will.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2023 as "Weird essences".
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