PJ Harvey, The Lady of Dorset

There is no way to box the petite, avant-garde alternative goddess PJ Harvey. She even challenges herself to evolve for each album. This type of woman in a man’s world who’s only accountable to herself, Polly Jean Harvey is a rare beauty who’s also been described as a pioneer of alternative modern rock.

It’s been a pleasure to witness her evolution from grunge queen through to multi-instrumentalist, documentary maker, poet and soundtrack composer.

“I didn’t want to tell people what to think or feel. I wanted to remain a narrator.”       PJ Harvey, 2011 

Revered for what she doesn’t give away, being undeterred by critics and thinking of herself as an introvert are three facts about Polly Jean that can neatly fit together if you think hard on it. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, she knows how she feels and couldn’t give a fuck about the haters. PJ is a simple lady who enjoys the traditional Gaelic culture of the English Dorset countryside where she grew up and now resides. She’s brave enough to follow where inspiration takes her and it seems to have some serious appeal. She is the only artist with two Mercury Prizes, and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to music in the 2013 Queen’s Birthday Birthday Honours.

A vulnerable, generous, artistic soul who’s let us in on the ride through her early 20s through to her now mid 50s, who has never lacked enough inspiration to create and share. Her tenth album I Inside the Old Year Dying came out in August and was the product of work with long-time collaborator John Parish.

It is the rain after a long drought since The Hope Six Demolition Project, with its politically-charged lyrics born from her travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. with photographer/filmmaker Seamus Murphy between 2011 and 2014. This time also inspired her book of poetry, The Hollow of the Hand.

Getting a record right has become more important to her than being prolific. 

“If it takes 10 years then I would rather wait and know that I felt each piece was strong than feel that it was time to put something out but five pieces are a bit weak.”

It nearly didn’t come about. The industry standard cycle of album-tour-album-tour in the early 2000’s wore her out. As did the heavy content of Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project. Carrying all of this on a slender set of shoulders was nearly too much. Polly Jean Harvey was ready to give up music. She’s described the long break until now as ‘gathering energies’. 

I Inside the Old Year Dying picks up where her 2022 book of poetry, Orlam, left off. Set in the Dorset woods, Harvey constructs a folk-horror universe with the assistance of two longtime collaborators, Mark Ellis (Flood) and John Parish. Old Dorset dialect, field recordings, audio libraries, and standard instruments have been ingeniously reshaped by Flood to create surreal sounds that transport listeners into the world of Harvey’s solace, sonic netherworld. The sound is not as driving as her early work and the lyrics aren’t nearly as tortured. Instead, I Inside The Old Year Dying is delicate and controlled, concerned with world-building and narrative construction. 

“A resting space, a solace, a comfort, a balm—which feels timely for the times we’re in.” Harvey said, describing the new album.

It was written and recorded using a studio set up for live play in just three weeks, just about everything on it is rooted in improvisation and spontaneity. Even Harvey’s vocal style was at the mercy of improvisation. If Ellis thought she sounded too much like PJ Harvey, the recording was scrapped. He encouraged her to sound much older as she sings about nature, religion, and Orlam’s main character Wyman-Elvis. These three have been collaborators for over three decades now, and Harvey said if something didn’t meet all of their high standards it was scrapped. 

“The more songs I’ve written, it’s harder to write songs because I so often start something and think, well, mm, that’s a bit like that song I wrote in 1996.” PJ Harvey Guardian, July 2023

She told Rolling Stone she’s very pleased with the record: “it took a long time to write to get right, but at last I feel very happy with it.”

She has always been a multidisciplinary artist who has worked with videography, has mastered many instruments, written for soundtracks, television and stage, as well as being such a strong lyricist. Given PJ’s evolution from grunge to poetry via pop, indie folk and war correspondence, her ‘allergy to repetition’ has been compared to David Bowie.

I Inside… is in a completely different place in 2016, and then there are songs from Rid Of Me (1993). She is a woman grown; in a different place personally to where she was in her teens. Given this, she usually refuses to play songs from Dry (1992), which was written when she was 17, describing it as reading from her 16-year-old diary. 

She has just finished two months touring the UK and Europe – her first live shows since 2017 – and US dates coming up next year. Critics have been reporting on her refound love for performing live. She did play with her usual motley crew as well as a few guests such as Johnny Marr from The Smiths. Anyone – even Polly Jean herself – doubting her drive to perform and entertain after 30 years and her hesitancy after the heaviness of Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project, some suggest 2007’s White Chalk may have added to her doubting whether to continue her music career.  Music critic Gemma Samways, gave her recent performance at London’s Roundhouse five stars in The Standard, saying: “Perhaps most hearteningly of all, we were left with the impression that Harvey still identifies as keenly with these back catalogue classics as she does her new material. It’s a very special artist indeed that can successfully maintain the balance between both worlds: proof, if it were needed, that Harvey remains a total one-off.” Amen sister. 

I Inside the Old Year Dying is another example of PJ Harvey navigating identity in her beautiful way. This album may be quiet reflection, fragmentation, and mystery compared to her grunge sound in the late 90s. The world is certainly a different place as she is. PJ’s sound is a long way from the grunge sound that resulted in her ‘discovery’ when she moved on from band Automatic Dlamini and released her first album, the grungy Dry all in 1991. John Parish in this first band with her, and have worked with her to this day. The sound of her tenth release is far from her initial sound. While Flood may limit ‘PJ Factor’ of each album in sound, you can still feel it. 

Ashlea Pritchard


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