sat 15/06/2024

Albums of the Year 2023: PJ Harvey - I Inside the Old Year Dying | reviews, news & interviews

Albums of the Year 2023: PJ Harvey - I Inside the Old Year Dying

Albums of the Year 2023: PJ Harvey - I Inside the Old Year Dying

Diggin' up the Dorset soil with the musical sorceress

PJ Harvey’s "I Inside the Old Year Dying"

PJ Harvey never fails to deliver – much as I hate that over-used word, the go-to assurance from politicians who promise the earth and dump nothing but shit. With Polly Harvey, she reaches into the unknown, true to her creative impulses, and oblivious to fashion.

And yet, an album like I Inside the OId Year Dying is without question a manifestation of the malaise which seems to have plunged humanity into almost impenetrable fog. No escapism here: this isn't a party record. In a career that has gone from blues-inflected exploration of wounds and desires to something more political, she seems to be seeking roots in her native soil, the history and pre-history-laden world of Dorset.

She is quintessentially English, and this year’s brilliant album zoomed into the microcosm of plants, animals, spirits, in a manner that has run deeply through the dark and potent side of this island’s culture. The bluesmen and women she was inspired by in her youth often sang of sorcery, in the form of African-rooted "medicine". Harvey is a sorceress too, weaving magic with her earthy West Country incantations. Nowhere was this more obvious to me than during her stage performances at the Roundhouse, as she paced across the stage, raising an otherworldly storm, along with the men who support her live, but whom she never upstages as they are her wonder-working acolytes. In 17th century Dorset, she would have been put on trial and very likely burnt at the stake.

Another form of spirituality courses through the music of Sufjan Stevens, who produced another album, Javelin, that celebrates the sacred without a hint of preaching. Oh, how we need such succour! Throughout the year, I have gone back again and again to the Rev James Cleveland’s “Peace be Still”, a piece of rousing gospel that never fails to fill my heart with emotion. You can find it on YouTube, the place I get stuck into far too often, late into the night, coaxed by the algorithm that picks songs I’ve never heard, and music that turns me on.

One of the high-points of my musical year was provided by Les Égarés, a refreshingly original supergroup, with Vincent Ségal (cello), Ballaké Sissoko (kora), Émile Parisien (sax) and Vincent Peirani (accordeon): music here as sophisticated conversation, a gathering of unusually inspired talents who listen to each other, and take the music they make into uncharted and yet immensely appealing territory – world music? Jazz? Fusion? It doesn’t matter: they are a total delight.

Another delight came with Ray Padgett’s Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members, a magnificent piece of oral history that reveals a great deal about aspects of Dylan that most biographies have barely touched upon.

More essential albums of 2023

Boy Genius - The Record

Sufjan Stevens - Javelin

Gig of the Year 2023

PJ Harvey, The Roundhouse, London

Track of the Year 2023

Revolution O - Boy Genius

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