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PJ Harvey’s New Album Packs a Dramatic Punch, If You Listen Deep

In “A Child’s Question (July),” PJ Harvey sings in a jaunty rhythm, “Who’s inneath the Ooser-Rod?/Horny devil? Goaty God?”

The words sound playful as her guitar swells liquidly around her voice, and the couplet goes by so mellifluously, chased by whispers and chirping birds, that it’s easy go with the flow without wondering just what the heck an Ooser-Rod is. But when you look up the words’ meaning in Orlam — the novel in verse Harvey released last year, which she wrote in the dying (or maybe dead) dialect of the Dorset countryside where she grew up — the song takes on more of a nefarious meaning: She defines “Ooser-Rod” as “a devil’s penis, abnormally large.” Even stranger, the Ooser, according to 19th Century folklore, is also something like a carnival mask used to scare people. So the “horny devil/goaty god” retort turns out to be a sort of forked-tongue-in-cheek, Freudian punchline.

This sort of century-jumping, middlebrow double-entendre defines Harvey’s latest, I Inside the Old Year Dying, not that anybody needs to know the album’s backstory, own a Dorset glossary, or possess a PhD in dialectology to enjoy it. Nevertheless, doing a little extra credit makes a difficult album to get into all the more enjoyable — especially since the music’s somber tones and arty folk-rock arrangements aren’t exactly easy listening. That said, anyone who’s followed Harvey in the past 30 years knows she enjoys challenging listeners.

Between the thudding blues riffs of her early albums, she sang about proud female exhibitionism on “Sheela-Na-Gig,” objectifying Robert De Niro in “Reeling,” and measuring her own impressive Ooser-Rod in “50ft Queenie.” The rawness of the music and the blunt-force trauma of her lyrics made her a Nineties icon. But by the middle of the decade and into the early Aughts, she grew restless and started exploring gothier shadowplay as well as the deeply emotional love songs of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. That restiveness drove her to explore poetry and use vivid language to describe the world around her, both her home country’s “grey, damp filthiness of ages” on 2011’s Let England Shake and the state of poverty around the world on 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project. Feeling worn out from touring, she almost gave up on music after Hope Six, instead investing herself in poesy.

The fruits of her poetic odyssey was Orlam, which tells the story of Ira-Abel Rawles, a nine-year-old girl who sees ghosts in Dorset’s Gore Wood, including an apparition called Wyman-Elvis who is half Jesus (King of Kings) and half Elvis (King of Rock); the titular Orlam is the eviscerated eye of Ira-Abel’s lamb, which serves as an oracle. Since the lyrics to every song on the album double as poems in Orlam, these characters are always present, demanding understanding. In that regard, the obtuse dialect and many neologisms throughout I Inside the Old Year Dying feel akin to Finnegans Wake (which most people needed a “skeleton key” to understand) or A Clockwork Orange (which could use a Nadsat dictionary). But also like both of those books, Harvey’s words make more sense when read out loud or heard from her mouth on the album. (Don’t forget that Marilyn Monroe, who was a lot better read than the characters she played, used to read Ulysses aloud.)

With melancholy music and Harvey’s own Dorset accent articulating the words, the poetry comes to life. That’s no easy task. Since the 12 songs on I Inside the Old Year Dying began as poems, they don’t translate to verse-chorus-verse pop songs at all. Instead Harvey, who has been working on score music for plays and TV series in recent years, composed folky mood pieces that capture the essences of her words, which she sings in unusual and often beguiling ways. Many of the songs, which she recorded with longtime collaborators John Parish and producer Flood, recall the downtempo energies of Let England Shake and her quiet 2007 album, White Chalk, and like those albums, the music here excels in its otherworldliness.

The best songs tend to find a hypnotic groove and stick to it. “Lwonesome Tonight,” which pays tribute to Elvis (as well as an aside about peanut-and-banana sandwiches) lopes along like early Seventies Neil Young with its finger-picked guitar line and Harvey’s Young-like falsetto tones. “Seem an I” cops an off-kilter rock rhythm that recalls mid-era Harvey that accommodates words like “wordle” (which means “world”) and the sadness in her voice when she sings, “and nuts I could not reapy” (animal testicles her farm-girl character couldn’t geld.) “I Inside the Old I Dying” continues her Neil Young harvest while hitting some of the same gothy tones of her To Bring You My Love album as she harmonizes with actor Colin Morgan singing about “the chalky (ghostly) children of evermore.” The album’s final song, “A Noiseless Noise” pays tribute poetically to John Keats and musically to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” with its avant-garde digressions and sound effects, though it also contains one of the album’s strongest vocal melodies.


Some of the songs are harder to digest easily, which is likely Harvey’s point on the album — to make people listen closer. The vocals on “Autumn Term,” harmonies sung in a sickening falsetto, sound gross on purpose. And the title track, which is one of the album’s most traditionally “rock” songs and runs only two minutes, feels like a sound collage of pretty and grotesque sounds with a keyboard or guitar sputtering out at the end. The textures in “August” never fully come into focus — actor Ben Whishaw whispers a round of “Love Me Tender” in the background — and the whole effect is like a palimpsest of ghostlike communications.

I Inside the Old Year Dying often feels like a closet drama, set in enchanted woods, with music drifting between the trees and whispers echoing in the distance. Since the story takes more of a backseat here than it does in Orlam, you sometimes have to trust in the magic of the sounds. Harvey, here, is striking on something different, something outside of traditional music, so that trust is important. The record ends with Harvey singing, “Go home now, love, leave your wandering …” to her Ira-Abel character, but listening to the journey that led that point sounds like Harvey will always have more fun wandering — even if she’s doing so at a desk at home.

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