Over thirty years since her barnstorming debut ‘Dry’ shook up the music world; it’s a blessing to see PJ Harvey still making fiercely independent music on her terms. She is truly one of the UK’s most daring artists, with no two albums she’s produced sounding the same. ‘I Inside the Old Year Dying’ continues the trend, Harvey and creative partners John Parish and producer Flood unearthing yet more fresh ground. Yet, this wasn’t always a guarantee. Following the end of the touring cycle for 2017’s ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project,’ the songwriter felt lost for the first time in her career. After twenty-five years in the game, she was unsure if she wished to carry on the usual cycle of album creation and touring that had been the focus of her entire adult life. Luckily for us, the creation of her dark long-form poetry book Orlam, and a spate of reissues and demo releases, helped push Harvey toward new material – and what material it is.
Its twelve tracks veer between the spectral and smoothing, Flood utilising field recordings and instrument manipulation to create fascinating background textures the like of which the trio has never attempted before. Harvey herself meshes the intimate and experimental to create something thrillingly unique. Pastoral and poetic, naturally, but with moments of unease and explosive outbursts. It follows the trend she’s followed since 2007’s ‘White Chalk’, being a mirror for this green and complicated land we call home, but here she sounds more at ease in her skin. Less performative, less a character she’s inhabiting to tell a tale, a return to something more personal and reflective. You can almost imagine Harvey kicking back in the West Country, humming melodies to herself, adding the odd word here and there as she deems fit. There’s a calm confidence to the whole project.
While sticking to the higher register she’s adopted on the majority of her 21st-century work, Harvey also finds space to experiment with her vocal approach. Opener ‘Prayer at the Gate’ sees her purposely singing as if she’s far older, adding frailty to the hypnotic number. Later ‘A Child’s Question, July’ sees the songwriter adopt, or perhaps more accurately, fully loose her thick Dorset accent to create an earthy track filled with a sense of the mystic. ‘The Nether-edge’ breaks more new ground, a glitched tremolo-affected vocal being layered on top skeletal backing, strangely recalling ‘Kid A’ era Radiohead. ‘I Inside the Old Year Dying’ is Harvey at both her most sonically daring yet most relaxed. It’s another intriguing addition to her back catalogue that deserves repeat visits to unpack properly. While one of her least immediate records, it stands as one of her most rewarding.
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Words: Sam Walker-Smart