Two critically revered female acts this week – Dorset’s PJ Harvey and Japanese-born Mitski. They both feature unwieldy album titles, and records are mellower than their usual fare. Enjoy!
The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We
Mitski took five years to release a follow-up to her beloved 2018 record Be The Cowboy. It was surprising, therefore, for a new studio album to appear so hard on the heels of 2023’s Laurel Hell. Laurel Hell always faced an uphill task, following a classic – the expectations are much lower for The Land is Inhospitable. It’s different from Mitski’s previous records – in the past, she’s favoured busy art-pop arrangements or alt-rock guitars. The Land is Inhospitable is low key, exploring different textures. Mitski has described it as her most American album, influenced by spaghetti Western soundtracks, Arthur Russell, and Scott Walker.
The Land is Inhospitable is a subtle album that takes time to reveal its charms. It’s diverse, in its own gentle way – Mitski leans into Americana on ‘The Frost’, while the closing ‘Love Me After You’ has a big climax, and recalls her earlier guitar-rock records. In less than two memories, ‘When Memories Snow’ builds from a gentle piano song to a big orchestral climax. The single ‘My Love Mine All Mine’ has been picked up on TikTok and has been surprisingly successful. As always, Mitski is skilled at packing complex ideas into succinct songs.
The Land is Inhospitable marks out new territory for Mitski, generally quieter and subtler than before. But even if she’s not reaching the heights of Be The Cowboy, she’s still one of the best contemporary songwriters out there.
I Inside the Old Year Dying
Polly-Jean Harvey has been relatively quiet recently – since 2011’s White Chalk she’s only released a couple of studio albums. It’s not just her productivity that’s mellowed – her music itself has become quieter with age. She’s known for her early abrasive work – 1993’s Rid of Me was produced by Steve Albini. But her 21st-century albums are often mellower – 2011’s Mercury prize-winning Let’s England Shake was often pretty mellow. On I Inside the Old Year Dying, she’s back working with long-time collaborators John Parish and Flood.
I Inside … is Harvey’s latest pivot – an intimate musical setting of 12 poems from her acclaimed 2022 collection Orlam. (Poetry Foundation called it “accomplished and allusive”.) Set in the Dorset woods, it chronicles the year in which her heroine, Ira-Abel, loses her innocence as childhood slips away and the pressures and perils of girlhood intensify. Harvey wrote the poems in an old Dorset dialect that she remembered from her youth (“drisk” is mist; “twanketen”, melancholy; “scratching”, writing). On I Inside … she sings in it, too, in startling, uncanny tones: sometimes naive and girlish, other times sharp and bitter.The Guardian
R’I Inside the Old Year Dying is ambitious and personal – the lyrics come from her poetry collection Orlam, reportedly at least semi-autobiographical. Harvey’s writing memorable tunes, but they’re often presented in unsettling ways. Her songs are skeletal and raw, and she often sings outside of her natural range. My favourite tracks include the opening ‘Prayer at the Gate’, with its wordless vocal hook, and ‘The Nether-edge’, where Harvey’s unsettling falsetto is particularly effective.
Harvey’s always fascinating, a restless auteur who’s endlessly creative. I Inside the Old Year Dying is another worthy chapter in a stellar discography.