When PJ Harvey announced the release of I Inside The Old Year Dying, her sense of relief was palpable. The seven-year gap from Harvey’s last record, The Hope Six Demolition Project, was due to a number of factors. One of them was a matter of will. She felt distant from music. The new album was difficult to make, she said, “and took time to find its strongest form”.
That said, Harvey has not been idle these past few years. Now that her musical creativity is burning again, it’s worth taking a moment to examine the route the singer has taken on the road to this obliquely powerful album. There has been film and television soundtrack work, for All About Eve, Bad Sisters and The Virtues, on which Harvey explored atmospheres, putting her music at the service of the image, adding blusher to the bruises of other people’s stories. There has been a fair bit of self-examination. Harvey’s back catalogue has been reissued, and in demo form too, a process which invites speculation about the recording process itself. The demos often have an immediacy, a raw power, which is diminished in the finished recordings. Sometimes it works the other way. When Harvey’s records have tended towards the febrile, the demos betray an intimacy that is less performative. They feel closer to the source.
Most importantly, there is Orlam, a book which does its best to defy description, being pitched somewhere between a poem and a narrative, the jumbled bones of a screenplay, or the half-remembered details of a dream which recurs in subtly different form every night before sinking back into the unconscious, its meaning lingering in menace and confusion. To add to the sense of bewilderment, the verses are written in the dialect of old Dorset. Even in English, the meaning seems less important than the mood, which seems to do with the marshy land adjoining childhood, adolescence and that brutal state, maturity. Orlam is gothic and lyrical, rural and biblical, its verses pregnant with maggoty slugs, swollen badgers and horny culvers. There is dark humour, and temporal dislocation. The word “orgasm” is slanged into a “Jim’ll Fix It”. There is a mention of Cluedo (a playful board game about murder), and the sweet innuendo of “fingers of Fudge”, which requires no further speculation.
In that book and on this record, Elvis stalks the land, though his character in the narrative is that of a dying soldier, a girl’s first love, a Christ-figure (the “dark-haired Lord”). He is also clearly the actual Elvis, as is evidenced by the occasional choruses of“Love Me Tender”, a song which pillaged its melody from the sentimental ballad “Aura Lee”, sung around campfires in the American Civil War. (Soldier, Elvis – Harvey has considered all the layers.) The poem “Lwonesome Tonight” (aka “Lonesome Tonight”) references both the Presley song and John 13:34, as it records the un-girling of a girl, a loss of innocence signalled by a satchel full of “Pepsi fizz” and – the King’s favourite – peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The song is quite lovely, a magical mystery in which a girl – naive or ready, it wouldn’t do to judge – approaches her shepherd expectantly, trilling, “Are you Elvis?/Are you God?/Jesus sent to win my trust?” Perhaps the synth is a sign that all is not perfect. It coils beneath the tune, a detuned radio signalling distress.
On her last two albums, Let England Shake (2011) and The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016), Harvey turned towards commentary. The recording of Hope Six was devolved to a theatrical project, with the singer performing at the centre of a creative zoo within London’s Somerset House. Her digression into poetry can be taken as further evidence of her frustration with the limitations of the traditional rock lyric. She certainly took the process seriously, seeking tuition from the Dundee poet Don Paterson, a writer with a keen understanding of musicality. “It might not be unexpected that Harvey’s songwriting would take a more inward direction,” Paterson writes. “Few, though, will have anticipated so minimalist a turn into quite so eerie a landscape.”
The words in Orlam were written as poems, not songs, though Harvey expressed a hope that they might emerge in another form; a strange film, perhaps, or a theatre piece. She didn’t rule out music. And here they are, more or less, murmured and tra-lah’d over a musical soundtrack which contrives to blend the folky innocence of the Moomins with – at the parched extremes – the alarm and discord of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Chernobyl soundtrack.
The influence of trusted collaborators John Parish and Flood is vital. This time around, Harvey all but abolished the demo-ing phase, recording stray thoughts into a phone and trusting instead in the collaborative process. Echoing the process of Hope Six, the studio was arranged for live playing, with tunes emerging from spontaneous performance. This gave Harvey the freedom to explore the possibilities of her voice. She sings with the confidence that every insinuation will be heard, even when the words are unfamiliar. On the opening “Prayer At The Gate”, she sounds both pained and distracted: her voice rises to an almost religious pitch, as the tune hums like an electrical substation. “Autumn Term” has an almost comical falsetto, and the noise of children playing is spliced into the song’s witchy spell. The singing is bell-like on “The Nether-Edge”, a digression into superstition and darkness which sounds like a playground chant, yet contrives to wave at both Hamlet and Joan Of Arc, while weaving a spell about “femboys” and a “not-girl” being “zweal-ed” on the stake.
You can probably decode zweal-ed, but the riddles in the lyrics are further explained in the sleeve notes. Many of the meanings are as implied. The “poser-rod” of a horny devil or a goaty God is, as you might surmise, “a devil’s penis, abnormally large”. “Chalky” is “ghostly”. Less predictably, “bedraggled angels” are wet sheep, and “Elvis” – it says here – is “all-wise”.
What does it mean to sound this ancient, this strange? Well, it’s to Harvey’s great credit that this fever dream never appears forced, and the experiment of shedding most of her signature sound is painlessly achieved. Elvis might intrude, sounding like Zooropa-era Bono, in the middle of “August”, but that is a feint. These days, PJ Harvey don’t play no rock’n’roll. There is only a ghostly scratching at the bedpost of the Beefheart blues, most notably on the closing “A Noiseless Noise”.
Impressively, the density of Orlam is made more accessible by its re-enactment as a suite of songs. It’s not necessary – perhaps it is not even possible – to understand that the narrator of the poems is a lamb’s eyeball, because the music has its own strange energy, a thunderless storm of electricity showering ripe insinuations. The weirdness is intense, but channelled, and the surprises arrive in a way that threatens, but fails to obliterate, the innocent fearfulness of childhood. Strangeness abounds. The strangeness of wondering.
Hark! I Inside The Old Year Dying is a singular thing. For all its disguises, all the tree-tears and twiddicks, it might be PJ Harvey’s most autobiographical record.