I Inside The Old Year Dying
Much like avoiding movie trailers, (which, these days, almost always reveal the entire plot) sometimes it’s best to approach new albums with as little information as possible before pressing play. That irretrievable, rousing feeling the first time you listen to an album, especially by an artist of such ingenuity as PJ Harvey, becomes intrinsic with your relationship to the work. As you come to your own conclusions about the music, there’s great satisfaction to be enjoyed when the imagery or references you note are reflected in the press materials. When this happens, it can make audiences feel in tune with the artist. Or, that they have simply done their job extremely well.
On her tenth studio album, and first body of new material since 2016’s Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey masterfully draws audiences into an extremely eerie world that is stark, enthralling and completely brilliant in its ability to excite the listeners imagination. This is all the more impressive given that the work was born from conquering and embracing challenges the English songwriter and musician faced post Hope Six… and throughout I Inside The Old Year Dying. During that time, Harvey was at odds with how she connected to music. Yet, she sought to retrieve that bond through a blend of poetry, playing other artist’s music during her practice sessions at home and by actively avoiding using the “PJ Harvey voice,” as she revealed in a recent interview.
Certainly, Harvey’s vocal stylings throughout I Inside… allows for a more unvarnished and raw representation of her artistry. There are times on the record such as the chilling opener “Prayer At The Gate” and “Lwonesome Tonight” where, adopting a higher register, Harvey’s cadence comes close to that of Sinéad O’Connor. Elsewhere, when exploring different moods, Harvey carves out moments of intimacy on “Seem an I” where it’s as though we’re alone in a room with her until the arrangement spontaneously shifts into an infectious rock number, and immediate highlight. The dexterity in Harvey’s performance injects a sense of rejuvenation in a work that is filled with so much sadness and decay.
The tonal quality to these arrangements often evoke a similar unsettling feeling anchoring The Wicker Man. There’s an undeniable folk horror sensibility coursing through I Inside’s… instrumental and lyrical structures. This is due to the correlation between this record and Harvey’s 2022 book of poetry, Orlam. Penned in the old-timey Dorset dialect and focusing on the end of the protagonist’s childhood, the record carries over those themes effectively. “A Child’s Question, August” and “A Child’s Question, July”, in particular, are two moments that immediately conjure Robin Hardy’s 1973 film through their protruding drum patterns and mentions of the death of Summer and searching for answers amongst nature: “Hail the hedgerow as it grows / Ask the hedgerow all it knows.”
Interestingly, alongside the harrowing folk horror motifs that inform much of I Inside’s character, a far more endearing and extravagant influence is woven into the tapestry; Elvis Presley. “Are you Elvis? Are you God?” Harvey asks on the atmospheric “Lwonesome Tonight” which also hears references to “Love Me Tender” and one of The King’s snacks of choice, “Peanut and banana sandwiches”. It’s not what you expect to hear on a record of this nature, but then again, PJ Harvey has never been one to conform to type. The “Love me tender” refrain returns amidst the dreamlike and dynamic “August”, almost serving as a reminder to herself or a request to the world around her.
Musically, I Inside… is endlessly captivating, in spite of its sinister edge and claustrophobic passages that have been cultivated by the steadfast collaborative force between Harvey, John Parish and Flood. Here, they move seamlessly through intricate arrangements, often anchored by engaging drum parts, luminous piano melodies, spectral field recordings and a myriad of wonderfully textured soundscapes. As they bring Harvey’s work together collectively, there’s an extraordinary balance of stark compositions and dense, industrious instrumentation. At times, it can seem like there’s endless space to roam and suddenly a song combines the two, such as the fascinating closing track, “A Noiseless Noise”. Elsewhere, the muffled and measured beat of “All Souls” contrasts the otherwise otherworldly setting that Harvey exists within with a far more contemporary sonic sensibility. Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of I Inside… is the duality that underpins its various elements.
And, despite the darkness and spookiness that I Inside… evokes, Harvey has said that this record provides “a resting space, a solace, a comfort, a balm-which feels timely for the times we’re in.” Certainly, these twelve are distracting and have the capabilities to take you away from external stresses with the breadth of these engaging and atmospheric arrangements. However, the typical conditions one requires for solace and comfort aren’t necessarily catered to when you are compelled to pay the utmost attention to every word Harvey intones, throughout.
With I Inside The Old Year Dying, PJ Harvey deftly builds a vivid world that, much like your favorite folk horror film, reveals more to itself with each return. And, once you come to know its every twist and turn, can bring a sense of comfort in its familiarity.
Looking for something new to listen to?
Sign up to our all-new newsletter for top-notch reviews, news, videos and playlists.