PJ Harvey’s Masterful Book-Length Poem Gets a Surreal Soundtrack With ‘I Inside the Old Year Dying’

PJ Harvey has never been one to lapse into routine. Every album since her 1992 debut, “Dry,” has taken unanticipated turns. Still, these disparate works can all be said to bear her discernible voice. For the first time, the artist has specifically distanced herself from any such identifiers. Harvey’s latest album, “I Inside the Old Year Dying,” fittingly finds the singer simultaneously looking back at her life and beyond it. Harvey escapes into her imagination, jettisoning many of the vestiges that made their way into her music by mere convention. Classic sounds still resound but now in relatively alien soundscapes. The songs ring like remixes from an alternate reality in which even Harvey’s voice assumes a different form. As it turns out, this is particularly suitable for the singular fantasy that is the album’s subject matter. The twelve new songs are adapted from Harvey’s book-length poem, “Orlam,” published last year. The lyrics are written in a dialect specific to the English coastal county of Dorset, where Harvey grew up. The cryptic, non-linear story involves a young girl’s coming of age in Dorset under the spiritual domain of a Christ-like entity known as Wyman-Elvis. Through its words, images, and music, there is plenty to marvel at in what emerges.

Harvey has recently kept busy with soundtrack work, and seven years have passed since her last album, “The Hope Six-Demolition Project,” a conceptual release that followed Harvey’s poetry book “The Hollow of the Hand,” and was culled content from her travels to Washington D.C’s HOPE VI projects and devastated locations in Kosovo, Afghanistan. During that record’s 2017 tour, Harvey found she had frankly fallen out of love with music and nearly quit the business. What brought her back was the memory of filmmaker Steve McQueen’s advice that she focus merely on words, images, and music, rather than songs and albums. Harvey reunited with long-term collaborators John Amish and Flood, who eventually produced the new album. 

“Prayer At the Gate” starts the album with swells of feedback and a blur of pulsating tones. There is a sense of an unfamiliar soundscape slowly coming into focus. A relatively unsettling frequency lingers in the mix in a way that somehow adds a serenity. Already, this is an album of opposites overlapping, worlds colliding. Harvey’s “doo doo doo” hook rings like a childhood regression atop an otherworldly sonic backdrop. “So look before, look behind / Life and death all intertwined,” she sings a quivering voice, in an excursion into the unknown that somehow brings us back to square one. The song plods on with the type of unhurried steady rhythm that people fall into when wisdom leads to some enlightenment. All the new songs emerged from improvisations, and here Harvey sings in impassioned ad libs that grow steadily more outlandish, like folk traditions from a culture of her own creation. 

Yet, the opener is nowhere near as radical as the next song, “Autumn Term.” It might sound out of tune, but PJ Harvey has ventured well off the 12-tone grid before. What’s bizarre is the vocals she delivers along with John Parrish, a creepy falsetto, curtailed as if sung under one’s breath. Clearly dramatism overrides any concern with creating pleasant sounds. Perhaps that could be said of her singing all along, to some degree, but now Harvey has wandered far into a deep forest of pagan folklore. Her trembling  wailing makes for a sort of dark, oblique soul as she steers both forwards and backwards, narrating, “I ascend three steps to hell / The school bus heaves up the hill.” 

“Lwonesome Tonight” introduces Wyman-Elvis with its title’s mangled Elvis allusion. Harvey’s singing, at the start, is unaffected and winsome in an almost Neil Young sort of way. Yet, she throws in an Eastern trill, and the reverberations of her melodies approaches something akin to the nostalgic fare that Weyes Blood turns out. Elsewhere, half-formed, skeletal guitar lines prickle around clipped screams and processed noise of shifting shape and color. “Seen an I,” tinds a groove in clumsy gestures and echoes the Doors. An arbitrary, retro-futuristic synth insert plays at a different rhythm, simulating a time warp. “The Nether-edge” is lysergic fare, a broadcast of high-frequency oscillations and tinny drums, far leftfield of “Revolution 9,” The chorus’ infectious melody is cathartic. Harvey sings with an earnest, childlike candor,, but her vocal is processed so as to clip in a way that sounds villainous. It fits a world with “life and death all intertwined.” 

Moments present themselves as singles more readily than the likes of “The Words That Maketh Murder” from 2011’s celebrated “Let England Shake.” The lead single, “A Child’s Question, August” fits on the album, but hardly represents its eccentricity. To strummed guitar and tambourine, Harvey sings a timeless melody. There is a scatter of nebulous electronic noise over otherwise timeless folk music. The chorus is a simple snippet that immediately registers, even with uneven measures and obscure lyrics. “Who says dunnick, drush or dove?” Harvey asks, in the Dorset dialect, of three birds. The melody resolves neatly with an Elvis lyric, “Love Me Tender?” In all the oddity and haze, we find Harvey simply looking for love. 

A dirge speeds to a modest jangle in the second single, “I Inside the Old I Die,” a more upbeat displacement of English folk sensibilities. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who featured on Harvey’s 2010 song “This Mess We’re In,” cited Harvey as an early influence, which now appears reciprocal. It could just stem from a shared sensibility, but echoes of Radiohead abound on the album. The second single starts off sounding quite like Radiohead’s “The Present Tense,” replete with a mimicry of Yorke’s idiosyncratic half-formed hum-singing. The track bears more resemblance yet to “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and bits of “Dollars and Cents.” The most unique feature is Harvey’s vocal, slightly distorted to emphasize a certain flightiness to her manner. Actor Colin Morgan chimes in to fill out the low register in the chorus, as Harvey changes her tone to something between a sigh and a swoon, summoning, “Oh Wyman / “Unray I for en?” In standard English, “unray” would mean “undress,” so the ambiguity and paradox continue, as the song lends itself to both prurient and puerile interpretations. 

On “A Child’s Question, July,” a twisted nursery rhyme takes after the oddest of English folk traditions — think “The Dreaming”-era Kate Bush or Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. There is a quantum quality to how flickering feedback simultaneously teases different rhythms. Harvey flies fittingly far out, wailing without words, as patterns emerge from chaos, until “A Noiseless Noise” brings the album to a satisfying end. progresses through three distinct phases in under six minutes and brings the album to a satisfying end, opening with birdsong and melody, then erupting into a No Wave-inspired midsection that would fit on an early Swans album, 

With “I Inside the Old Year Dying,” PJ Harvey relaxes the constraints on her music and puts forth her voice as a radio receiver. She doesn’t bother to filter, moderate, or polish the sounds that inspire her. The resulting music is an ideal fit for the cryptic fantasy that she envisioned in “Orlam.” Literature and folklore are paired with resonant stylings of classic sounds, scattered loosely in a sound palette that all but abandons convention. Textures turn toward the psychedelic and the abstract, while the music altogether approaches a work of theater, staged somewhere in the deep recesses of a creative mind, where an overdue decluttering has made room for some dazzling displays. 

I Inside the Old Year Dying” releases July 7 on Apple Music