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Albums Of The Week: PJ Harvey | I Inside The Old Year Dying

Seven years & one creative crisis after her last album, the maverick singer-songwriter rediscovers her passion for music — & uses it to fuel another deep, dark masterpiece.

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE:I Inside The Old Year Dying is the 10th album from PJ Harvey and her first since 2016’s Grammy-nominated The Hope Six Demolition Project. The album is produced by long-time collaborators Flood and John Parish.

Throughout her career, Harvey has ensured that each phase has taken her somewhere new, but her latest music is audacious and original even by her own standards. Full of a sense of a cyclical return to new beginnings, it combines its creative daring with a sense of being open and inviting, in the most fascinating way. The new songs, Harvey says, offer “a resting space, a solace, a comfort, a balm — which feels timely for the times we’re in.”

I Inside The Old Year Dying’s story goes back six years, to the end of touring around Hope Six in 2017 and how Harvey felt afterwards. She keenly believed that somewhere in the endless cycle of albums and tours, she had lost her connection with music itself, a realisation that was troubling beyond words.

This was hardly a time of creative withdrawal: Thanks to mentoring by the Scottish poet Don Paterson, she worked on Orlam, an accomplished work of poetry — her second, after 2015’s The Hollow Of The Hand — that was published last year and became one of the new album’s key inspirations. There were also the reissues of Harvey’s preceding albums — and, in new editions, their demo versions — that came out between 2020 and 2022. But eventually, two things began to push her in the direction of new songs, music and sounds.

One was the memory of a meeting with artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen in Chicago during the Hope Six period. His advice was to remember what she loves about words, images and music and to put away the concept of writing “an album” to focus on and play with these three passions. The other catalyst for a return to music was simple: The sheer act of playing it. Picking up the guitar or sitting down at the piano to play her favourite songs by such artists as Nina Simone or Bob Dylan reconfirmed her passion for the art form.

Something started to cohere. When Harvey began to write new songs, there was a liberating sense of making music for its own sake, rather than the first steps back into the album-tour-album-tour cycle. She drew on the sense of creative freedom she had felt in past musical work on soundtracks, and in the theatre. At the same time, her perspective was shifting, away from the big themes of Let England Shake and Hope Six (“looking out, at war, politics, the world”), towards something more intimate and human.

The new songs, Harvey says, “all came out of me in about three weeks”. But that was only the beginning. The key to what would happen next — at Battery Studios in North West London — lay in a three-way creative bond that now goes back nearly 30 years, between Harvey, her enduring collaborator and creative partner Parish, and Flood: Nominally a producer, though that word does not really do him justice.

“The studio was set up for live play, and that’s all we did,” she says. The importance of this is hard to overstate: if I Inside the Old Year Dying is a very tactile, human record, that is partly because just about everything on it is rooted in improvisation: Spontaneous performances and ideas, recorded at the moment of their creation.

There is something profoundly uplifting and redemptive in the recording, qualities exemplified by the album’s leadoff single A Child’s Question, August. “I think the album is about searching, looking — the intensity of first love, and seeking meaning,” says Harvey. “Not that there has to be a message, but the feeling I get from the record is one of love — it’s tinged with sadness and loss, but it’s loving. I think that’s what makes it feel so welcoming: So open.”

Harvey has commanded attention since the start of her career and is the only musician to have been awarded the U.K.’s Mercury Music Prize more than once, winning first in 2001 for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and again in 2011 for Let England Shake. An accomplished poet and visual artist, as well as a musician and songwriter, her work is striking in its originality: Vivid, absorbing and distinct. Since the release of The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was a No. 1 album in her native U.K., she has contributed compositions for stage and screen — most recently for Sharon Horgan’s acclaimed Bad Sisters series.