I Inside The Old Year Dying
DRISK, DRUSH, GAWLY, zun. Chammer, mampus, twiddicks, vog. It’s been seven years since Polly Harvey last released an album, but thanks to the expressive Dorset dialect clumped and scattered across I Inside The Old Year Dying, you could well believe it’s been several centuries. With 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project Harvey cast herself in a thoroughly modern role – the reporter making sense of the world by travelling to Afghanistan, Kosovo, the poorest neighbourhoods of Washington DC, collating her findings in smokedamaged song-dispatches. Despite the brilliant, scorched immediacy of the music, this telling of other people’s stories came with an inherent distance, Harvey’s long-standing gift for reporting on the internal frontlines of desire and distress not wholly transferable to external warzones.
I Inside The Old Year Dying is a very different prospect. It tells a story that belongs to Harvey completely, her own occult Ordnance Survey map, sunk deep in the soil where she was raised. With a few modifications and edits, the lyrics to these songs are pieces from Orlam, the poem cycle Harvey published last April. Early-’90s interviews with Harvey often expressed a fascination with her farm-girl upbringing in Dorset – not least her tales of lamb-castration, an act that features in these poems (“nuts”, helpfully, is glossed as both “joy” and “testicles”). With Orlam, she reclaimed that past, creating a fictional world as earthy as it is ethereal, its dank, thorny landscape so vividly rendered you feel a tetanus shot might be required after reading.
The book tracks a year in the life of a Dorset girl called Ira-Abel Rawles, who endures the perversity of bestial men, falls in love with the ghost of an English Civil War soldier – part Christ, part Elvis and ambiguously sheds her childhood innocence. All this spills into I Inside The Old Year Dying, the complex character-based narrative necessarily stripped out to sharpen the focus on broader themes of death and rebirth. “So look before and look behind/ At life and death all intertwined,” sings Harvey on Prayer At The Gate, the song that opens the album with an eerie horn-like summons, like Warren Ellis as Herne The Hunter. On I Inside The Old I Dying, rustling guitars part for a moment of explicit transformation. “Slip from my childhood skin/I zing through the forest,” sings Harvey, before joining “the chalky children of evermore”, a ghostly rank of souls, lost or otherwise.
It's her own occult Ordnance Survey map, sunk deep in the soil where she was raised.
It makes sense, then, that I Inside The Old Year Dying should feel both like a fresh start and a kind of culmination. Its roots stretch back into Harvey’s past work, back to Sheela-Na- Gig’s primal superstitions or To Bring You My Love’s silty blues. There are echoes of the lost girls of Is This Desire?, of the folk horror/folk memory of Let England Shake, of White Chalk’s etherised waifs and wraiths. Folklore, sex, death, love: it’s nose-to-tail Harvey.
The sense of homecoming is underlined by the tight circle of musicians: alongside Harvey’s guitar, keyboards and bass clarinet are trusted long-time collaborators John Parish (on drums, synthesizers and trombone) and co-producer Flood. Adam ‘Cecil’ Bartlett adds field recordings and “sonic disturbance”, while actors Colin Morgan and Ben Whishaw provide sensitive, low-key backing vocals. Whether the soft Doors-like swell of Seem An I, or the martial abrasions of A Noiseless Noise, these songs let in what they need to let in – although, as the uncanny loops and distortions suggest, they can’t keep everything undesirable out. There are toads and hedgehogs, birds and beetles; something rustles in the hedgerows. There’s a porousness, a to-and-fro between inside and outside, now and then, dream and reality. In Autumn Term, for example, the textbook new start becomes a more profound transformation. “I ascend three steps to hell/The school bus heaves up the hill,” sings Harvey, punctuated by Throbbing Gristle-like bursts of playground mayhem. “Look behind yourself, red-eyed/’Gainst the wilder-mist to what you’ll find”. Wilder-mist is translated as the “steam on a window”; rub your hand across the condensation, suggests Harvey, clear a space to see, and you might catch sight of something unexpected, something out of time, out of place.
That’s explicit on Lwonesome Tonight (sic), where incongruous packed-lunch Americana – “Pepsi fizz/Peanut-and-banana sandwiches” – and echoes of Elvis Presley jar against a supernatural sexual awakening in the woods. The Nether-Edge, meanwhile, evokes the warped electronics and between-worlds hovering of 1998’s Is This Desire?, a needling incantation that quotes Hamlet and alludes to Joan Of Arc in a psychic pile-up of past and present. Harvey’s voice is equally slippery, oscillating between confiding whisper and high keen; on the toad-licking A Child’s Question, July, the kind of feverish folk whirl that could bring the witchfinder general to town, she sings with almost child-like plaintiveness of a “Horny devil/Goaty god”. It could be hammy goth ventriloquising, but it’s too close to the ground for that.
Without a read-through of Orlam, I Inside The Old Year Dying might err towards the cryptic; even with one, it’s no moon/June riot. The atmospheres Harvey and her collaborators create are so thickly sustained, though, they quickly draw you towards their emotional core. The title track stomps onwards over twig-crack percussion, wracked by pain and grief; A Child’s Question, August warms up into a song of yearning, nature-poetry detail and Victorian lace not masking its rock’n’roll ancestry: “Help me dunnick, drush and dove/Love me tender/Tender love”.
In 2019, Harvey’s Instagram account marked her birthday by posting two pictures of the singer standing in a Dorset field, taken 40 years apart. With that ambiguous title suggesting both a backwards glance at all that has been lost, and a move into the future, I Inside The Old Year Dying holds itself at the biting point between old and new, re-evaluation and revelation. What lies on the other side, only Polly Harvey knows, but this is a record she was born to make.
I Inside The Old Year Dying is out July 7 via Partisan
Photo: Steve Gullick
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