PJ Harvey, I Inside the Old Year Dying review: A grungy, pagan whirl around the Dorset countryside

‘I Inside the Old Year Dying’ is Harvey’s 10th studio album  (Steve Gullick)
‘I Inside the Old Year Dying’ is Harvey’s 10th studio album (Steve Gullick)

The double Mercury Prize-winning PJ Harvey has a reputation for making “difficult” music. When I tell a friend I’m reviewing her latest, he sympathises with the “chore” I have ahead, noting that Harvey’s new weirdy-witchy, rural-childhood-in-Dorset-themed album “sounds like it should have been the background to that Bridget Christie sitcom about spooky villagers”. This observation does make me smile occasionally as I listen to I Inside the Old Year Dying – particularly when Harvey dirge-repeats a line about “the chalky children of evermore” on the title track, like a woman in an ITV crime drama cult. But I’m also quite susceptible to a bit of earthy folk grunge, and to Harvey’s slippery melodic hooks, which twist cool and deep like underground streams.

After the outward-looking war reportage of 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, I Inside… finds 53-year-old Harvey turning inward. Returning to the farm-girl childhood, which so obsessed the music press when she first began making music under her own name in the early 1990s. Although perm-wary of nostalgia, Harvey recently found herself gravitating to her origins on the former iron age hill fort after taking poetry lessons with 59-year-old Scottish poet Don Paterson (who published his own boyhood memoir this year). And although she refuses to acknowledge any autobiographical inspiration, in 2022 Harvey published a collection of narrative poems titled Orlam. They used 19th-century Dorset dialect and followed the emotional rise and fall of the Southern English landscape.

Those poems become songs on I Inside… The cycle tracks the seasons. There’s a song for each of the 12 months. Drums slog up hills and reverb-y acoustic guitar patterns roll giddily down them. Grungy electric guitars slosh about in the pig pen puddles. Squeezes of the accordion evoke the strange ritual of the Morris dance. Tunes snag your elbow like blackthorn and barbed wire from the off as Harvey opens the album with the carefree carolling “do-da-doo-do-do-doo” of “Prayer at the Gate”. Lyrically, a childhood dies as a soldier appears through the “drisk” (mist). Harvey’s voice trembles and yowls at the prospect of “life a-knocking at death’s door” as her character heads towards a “dark-haired Lord”. It’s all kinda murky, retro Wicker Man.

The sinister sounds of the playground seep into the mix of the second track “Autumn Term” as Harvey intones: “I ascend three steps to hell/ The school bus heaves up the hill”. There’s a seductive pretty-blues sway to “Lwomesome Tonight” (a track surely destined for repeat play on 6Music) as Harvey drops 20th-century lingo into her lines: “In her satchel, Pepsi fiss/ Peanut-and-banana sandwiches”. She conjures the ghost of Elvis as she explores the world of a “Gurrel” [girl] who “yearns yet to un-girl”. The troubled King’s black velvet legacy continues to echo through the songs: dark, slick and lost.

There’s a low-slung groove to “Seen an I”, which sets an easygoing sonic slop-slosh to the discomfort of a character who lives in a world of “not-friends running nowhere… bog-veiling elsewhere… and nuts I could not reapy”. Electronic bleeps and pulses kick in for “The Nether-edge”, on which “Femboys in the forest find/ figs of foul freedom”. Synths assume control on “All Souls” before things slip back into the grungiverse with “A Child’s Question, August” and by “A Child’s Question, July”, Harvey is dreamspooling about “horny devils and goaty Gods” to fire pit-picking as bird song hovers above her.

Final track “A Noiseless Noise” should be a terrific set closer live. It begins with just Harvey and her electric guitar lamenting the “falling reddening” before a downpour of drumming and a scrawl of background noise evokes a random storm. I suspect that those who’ve always found Harvey a chore will find much to mock. But her fans will be all in for this mucky pagan whirl.