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I Inside The Old Year Dying (Partisan)

It starts from nothing, at most the faintest suggestion of a sound: not a note, a beat, not even an exhalation, before one ring of a chime or bell. And then, a semi muted, fading horn: less a call to the chase than a falling release, an abandonment.

A start that is all but an end.

Now snare and then a drum mark a pace that is marginally above funereal, markedly short of a stride, before a woman’s wordless singing arrives, accompanied by what may be harmonium in the guise of a wheezy retiree. She has the rhythm of a work song, but as the words emerge the tenor is of a seeker – slightly coarsening with each line without ever losing its high tremble – who knows what portends. One who has been here before.

“As childhood died the old year/Made The Soldier reappear/The ash embowered night and day,” she sings, soon speaking of “drisk shrouded in its cloak/Holway, river, brook and oak/All souls under Orlam's reign/Made passage for the born again.”

Look around for the barrels and harvest, nod to the Wicker Man and small icons, for this is partially incomprehensible but understood. Older than you, set to outlive you, existing with no reference to or need of you. But immersing you.

This is but one song, Prayer At The Gate, but we know where we stand. Or, indeed, for some, maybe many, they know where they leave.

The world PJ Harvey conjures on this album is poetic and practical: drawn from her prose poem book, Orlam and blending through the idiom (and spelling) of her native Dorset just as it blends the landscape and inner voices; hovering near dreams and unfocused past while never letting go of the tangible and real. A place where Harvey can sing of “Beech and aller, woak and birch” in the same song as her protagonist heads out with “In her satchel, Pepsi fizz/Peanut and banana sandwiches/For this man her shepherd is”. An Elvis-quoting shepherd at that.

It is also a world that sits aside from contemporary music but, crucially for those who grew apart from her past few albums, the spectral White Chalk, the almost archaic clatter and hum of Let England Shake, and the massed choral blues and socio-political energy beneath the appealing melodies of The Hope Six Demolition Project, it is not disconnected from it, nor devoid of alluring elements. It even offers, for those pining, still, for a PJ Harvey guitar rock record, the vicious and vigorous A Noiseless Noise, to tantalise as the last song and maybe even hint of where she might go next time.

For now though, the slowly tumbling drums and bleeping synths of Seem An I are cut through by circular electric guitars, her initially lonely wandering voice firming into certainty but still underplaying the edge of lyrics that come in and out of a picture of pain and perseverance and delayed but not denied (divine?) intervention. The drums become a brisk march/dance around a bonfire in A Child’s Question, July, which feels equal parts witchy and beguiling, like gazing into the fire and seeing shapes beckoning you in.

Within the title track’s cart-on-a-side-track rhythm is a pulse that brings a counterpoint of hope to the more forlorn voice that, although not in any way ethereal – it carries an emotional weight that grips – still threatens to lift and leave. The balancing act is enthralling, just as it is in Lwonesome Tonight where the interaction of metallic acoustic guitar and low rolling drums is mimicked in the reaching, almost yearning high female voice and the occasional appearance of a semi-solid male voice, everything seemingly either trembling desire or vaguely threatening denial. Or both.

Always both in truth, as the vibrations of lust almost lay waste to sense and sensibility, parting “her bready, her bready lips”, while his mouth remains elusive. As elusive as the answers in All Souls, which references Elvis, desire and death (and counts us to “At the first, a crimson mist/At the second, sleeplessness/At the third, a broken tryst/At the fourth, a lonesomeness”) or August, where Harvey and Ben Whishaw (speaking), ask that someone “Love me tender/Love me sweet/All memories will fade” within a room spiked with raggedy guitars and surrounded by encroaching walls.

So, can you stay here? Elvis knew. Polly Jean knows. "So look before, look behind/Life and death all innertwined/And teake to your dark-haired Lord/Forever bleeding with The Word.”


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