New albums by PJ Harvey, Joni Mitchell and Anohni and the Johnsons pepper a sweltering month
It’s too hot, too humid to do anything but get to this month’s trio of albums.
Women are taking center stage in July — PJ Harvey’s first album since 2016, Joni Mitchell’s surprise set at last year’s Newport Folk Festival getting its official release and the first Anohni and The Johnsons album in over a decade.
Harvey’s recording pace has slowed down in recent years, with only one release since Let England Shake, a scalpel-sharp anti-war album that was 2011’s best.
That was The Hope Six Demolition Project, inspired by housing projects in the U.S. under the Hope VI banner, as well as distressed areas in Afghanistan and Kosovo. However well-meaning and, at times, absorbing it could be, the whole thing had an unshakeable air of plight tourism.
Artist: PJ Harvey
Album: I Inside the Old Year Dying
Label: Partisan Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Harvey’s been busy with other pursuits, including soundtrack work, sculpting and, most notably, poetry. And that brings us to I Inside the Old Year Dying, which is based on her book-length narrative poem Orlam, released earlier this year.
This was no simple project. It took eight years to finish. It started as a second collection of poems (after 2015’s The Hollow of the Hand collaboration with photographer Seamus Murphy), but some of them felt connected. She worked with Don Paterson, a mentor, to expand her skills for such an ambitious project.
Additionally, she had to learn the intricacies of the now almost-lost dialect of Dorset, where she grew up. The work is in nearly extinct, allowing Harvey to explore communication where multiple meanings of words open the door for interpretations. Orlam is the tale of Ira-Abel, a nine-year-old girl and her encounters on all manner of supernatural beings (including title character, the all-seeing oracle that’s an eye of a dead lamb), a semi-messianic figure called Wyman-Elvis (leading to references to “Love Me Tender” and peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches) and humans (some being the most predatory of animals) over the course of a year. It all lead her to change herself, or perhaps themself.
Harvey planned to adapt the poem into a theatrical piece. There were readings and workshops, but as the songs came together, she realized that they would work better as an album. She brought in two people she’s worked with for a long time — collaborator John Parish and producer Flood.
Despite its unspecified time setting that clearly seems in the past, Harvey did not want the music to be the most obvious fit. She told NPR, “I very much wanted to avoid tipping into predictable folk music, which these words and this subject matter would have lent itself to so well, so I went the opposite direction. Other than the main instrument and the voice, I really wanted everything to be quite unidentifiable and strange, because of that need to create this magical, mystical unknown universe that I wanted the words to inhabit.”
If there’s an album in Harvey’s past discography that I Inside the Old Year Dying shares somewhat of a kinship with, it’s 2007’s White Chalk. That album had less literary and theatrical origins and was built around voice and piano, but they both share a certain spare quality.
Here, it’s mostly strummed instruments, percussion, electronics and those utterly changed field recordings.
This is not the album you’re looking for if you want the full band sound of the PJ Harvey of yore, but if you were hoping for an improvement from Hope Six Demolition Project, you’ve found it.
But whereas that album was more direct, this one is much harder to get a grasp on. With lyrics in that old dialect, the meanings aren’t as readily apparent. But ironically enough, the emotions are more accessible. There was a distance to Hope Six, as if Harvey was engaged more in observation. Here, she inhabits the characters, the distance gone as she inhabits a realm she created from the ground up.
Two actors who were part of the project when it was intended to be theatrical, actors Ben Whishaw and Colin Morgan, appear on the album on vocals.
Additionally, field recordings which Adam “Cecil” Bartlett brought in for the theater version were played live and manipulated and distorted to remove what Harvey felt would be a stereotypical nature sounds element. The playing, Harvey’s singing, the manipulations of the available field records, all of it were done in real time.
Harvey may have told Parish and Flood to act as sort of hall monitors to keep her from doing her vocals in the usual ways. It didn’t doesn’t mean there’s an unfamiliar voice with you in those Dorset woods, where it feels you’ve been placed with no connection to the inside world.
That voice is powerfully immediate on “Prayer at the Gate”, breathy and almost subsumed by falsetto vocals on “Autumn Term” and later altered to sound warbly on “The Nether-edge”, as if they were a transmission starting to cut out. Over the course of the album, though, it becomes clear that the only way for Parish and Flood to have followed Harvey’s instructions completely would have been to have someone else handle lead vocals. Even in new places, it’s still unmistakably Harvey’s work.
VIDEO: PJ Harvey “Lwonesome Tonight”
Take the title track, one the album’s less-subdued moments, where the background guitar gets louder, the song hearkening back to her sound as the ’90s wore on. Same goes for “A Noiseless Noise” at the end, with even more feedback and clatter at its midway point.
Boiling an over 300-page poem down to 12 songs in an almost archaic local dialect admittedly results in I Inside the Old Year Dying in an album that’s more impenetrable than her previous material. Its strengths are feel, emotion and atmosphere.
It’s often more of a case where evocative lines stick — “So look behind, look before/Life knocking at death’s door/And teake to your dark-haired Lord/Forever bleeding with The Word”, “Just a noiseless noise/Just a gawly girl/Just a bogus boy.”
Taken as a whole, I Inside the Old Year Dying needs repeated listens, but the music and vocals allow it to reveal itself in absorbing ways.
The album isn’t just a welcome return, but given how Harvey has said the process reinvigorated her love for music after exhausting Hope Six tours, its gifts extend beyond the songs. It’s a reminder that for as talented as she is in other artistic pursuits, it’s always good to have new music from her.
Joni Mitchell, her legacy secure, has been more retired than not over the last 20 years. She was last in the studio for 2007’s Shine, her first album of new material in over ten years and her only one since her announced retirement in 2002.
She’s only toured twice in the last 40 years (1998 and 2000) with only a few scattered appearances since where she’d do a handful of songs. It wasn’t all sunshine, painting and relaxation, as it took time for her to recover from a 2015 brain aneurysm. Once survival was achieved, she had to relearn how to walk and talk. She used old videos of herself for instruction to learn how to play guitar again.
But at the Newport Folk Festival last year, things changed. It was supposed to be a Brandi Carlile set. But then Carlile introduced Mitchell, turning it into a Joni Jam. Mitchell, with the help of an assorted cast, ran through 13 songs. The “You had to be there” experience is now available as Joni Mitchell at Newport.
Artist: Joni Mitchell
Album: Joni Mitchell at Newport
★★★★3/4 (3.75/5 stars)
Well, most of the experience, as the album omits two covers — “Love Potion No. 9” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”, making the focus more of Mitchell as a songwriter. The track order is, disappointingly, rearranged as well.
Ironically enough, the one remaining cover is the album’s highlight, as Mitchell, then 78, inhabits George Gershwin’s “Summertime” as if it had been written for her. Her voice may be a little more weathered, but her once lilting soprano is now an alto full of warmth.
The album cover, as well as the videos from that day, show that Mitchell clearly was enjoying herself — the smile, the laughs you can hear throughout. It’s not just that it was her first public performance since her recovery, in front of a surprised audience thrilled to see her. She also had an onstage support system — Carlile and her band, Lucius, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, Wynonna Judd, Celisse Henderson and more, sitting along with her, there to pay homage through her music.
Celisse gets the honors the one time Mitchell cedes the stage, handling lead vocals and guitar for a soaring version of “Help Me”. It’s a gesture of practicality (the song’s high notes are out of the star’s range) and generosity for a newer artist.
The album sticks mostly to Mitchell’s beloved work in the ’70s, with only “Come in From the Cold” from 1991’s Night Ride Home and 2007’s “Shine” being from less than 40 years ago.
VIDEO: Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile “A Case of You” at Newport 2022
If Carlile is threatening to become as omnipresent as Dave Grohl, she’s put that visibility to good use, whether it’s helping Tanya Tucker on her comeback or getting Mitchell to take a well-deserved victory lap or two. The two trade vocals on a version of “A Case of You”, on the short list of best Joni songs, with Mitchell’s lower register holding it steady while Carlile takes off with the high notes.
That pattern shows up throughout the album — with Goldsmith on “Amelia”, Goldsmith and Carlile on “Come in From the Cold”, Carlile again on “Carey” and “Shine”, Judd and pretty much everyone on the closing “Circle Game.”
Mitchell is front-and-center on “Both Sides Now”, handling the lead vocals all the way through. She also gets a center stage moment on guitar, playing “Just Like This Train”, a nice testament to the work it took her to relearn how to play.
It is hard not to wish the others had taken a backseat more often. Even with age, Mitchell still has a good voice and she’s in good spirits here. One is left wishing for more of her in the spotlight, without Carlile’s hypewoman shtick (“Tell ’em what time it is, Joni”, “Kick ass, Joni Mitchell”). However sincere her enthusiasm might be, it sometimes plays like Carlile is afraid that people will forget she’s there. Joni take the wheel.
One can’t be a complete curmudgeon with the good vibes onstage being audibly palpable, though.
Who knows where it goes beyond this? Much of the same cast, with additional faces like Annie Lennox, Sarah McLachlan and Wendy & Lisa, joined her for another, longer, Joni Jam at the Gorge Amphitheater in June.
There could always be another one or two of those. Perhaps less likely, we could be blessed with new music. During a March interview with Dr. Carla Hayden at the Library of Congress, Mitchell said, “I don’t know what to write in terms of songs. I mean,you know, we need a positive. All of us do, kind of in these times, you know, it seems to have, the world seems to have lost its way. So, to write songs along those lines is a big responsibility.”
As it is, if all we get as an official release is Joni Mitchell at Newport, it’s an imperfect, but still lovely surprise, a pleasant encore where Mitchell and the audience get some well-earned joy.
VIDEO: Joni Mitchell performs “Both Sides Now” at Newport 2022
For the first time in over a decade, Anohni has brought the band back.
It’s been long enough that the last time there was an Anohni & The Johnson’s album, she was recording under her former name.
My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross has arrived 13 years after their last album– Swanlights. It’s also seven years since her first and only solo album – Hopelessness.
Artist: Anohni and the Johnsons
Album: My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross
Label: Secretly Canadian
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Here, Anohni took inspiration from soul music, a shift from Hopelessness, which was awash in synths and electronic beats. She enlisted producer Jimmy Hogarth, who’s worked with a lot of people — Tina Turner, Amy Winehouse and co-writing and producing four songs on Duffy’s 2008 retro pop/soul breakthrough Rockferry. The two started with Nina Simone and Jimmy Scott as inspirations before things took a life of their own.
Lyrically, the songs touch on a couple of areas that her previous works have– identity and the ongoing threat of climate change (and the factors which feed it like uncontrolled capitalism).
The songs came together quickly. As Hogarth played guitar, Anohni put her musical ideas together with the lyrics. In two weeks, they were ready to bring in other musicians to flesh out the ten songs.
Continuing with the quick work, many of Anohni’s vocals were first takes. “It’s a wonderful chance to record a song as you’re realizing it,” she told the Guardian this year. “It’s like catching something that flies fresh and new into the world.”
She’s said that Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On? album was an inspiration, but on “It Must Change”, one detects a little Curtis Mayfield.
Her quavering voice sings a plea for empathy, first personally and then to broader concerns (“The fire is cleaning/The oil from the stones/Your God is failing you, things must change”).
Right-wing politicians have amped up attacks on trans people’s existence. Anohni sings from their POV, one where the goal is genocide, not freedom. She uses her vibrato to dramatic effect, making her point clear from the get-go (“You’re so kill-able/Just so kill-able/It’s not personal/It’s just the way you were born”).
It’s not always political being personal. “Sliver of Ice” was written about Lou Reed, a friend and collaborator. They’d appeared on each other’s records and at each other’s shows (notably Reed joining Anohni at a Carnegie Hall show to do “Candy Says”). His support was crucial in her early career, especially in getting her breakthrough 2005 album I Am a Bird Now released.
VIDEO: Anohni and the Johnsons “Sliver of Ice”
The song comes from a conversation she had with them in his final weeks before his 2013 death from cancer. He told her how his caregiver had put a piece of ice on his tongue and he enjoyed the sensation of it, enjoying as many of the little things he could in the time he had left. It’s all the more poignant with her perfectly calibrated vocals painting the portrait of experiencing joy and love in the face of imminent death.
Hogarth’s guitar work aids the production, from his delicacy on “Sliver of Ice” to the distortion and atonal notes of “Go Ahead.”
There’s a bit of full circle happening. Anohni named the group after LGBTQ activist Marsha P. Johnson, who she’d met as a NYU student six days before Johnson’s death. It’s Johnson’s face on the cover, a reminder of the city’s past, when chosen families were created among people who’d been rejected for being who they are in rough-and-tumble locations. Some, like Johnson, are longer with us — the inspirations, the mother and father figures whose backs were those bridges.
“Can’t” goes deeper into grief over those lost, echoing hints of Isaac Hayes’ productions. Considering how detail-oriented some of Anohni’s prior work has been, there’s something bracing in hearing her cut loose vocally as she does as the song builds to its finish.
The quick fashion in which the album was created is reflected in how the songs are allowed to breathe, precise without being overly fussed over.
And while the topics and emotions can get heavy, Anohni tackles them with a tender touch. The lovely “Why Am I Alive Now?” shows the most Gaye influence, a “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy Me” for 2023, tinged with more loneliness.
It’s followed by “You Be Free”, which ends the album as a gentle call to arms. Anohni’s 51 now, older than some of the queer elders in her early days were when they passed. Through her artwork and music, she’s now in a position to be an inspirational figure and to open opportunities (such as the talent on camera and behind it for the album’s videos).
Anohni’s said that after Hopelessness, she was unsure if she’d ever make another album again, that the desire to create art through music wasn’t there. Whatever got her to reconnect with her muse, the honesty and depth of her lyrics, combined with new musical explorations, make My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross as strong as any album she’s ever done.
- Picture This: Blondie’s Parallel Lines at 45 - September 26, 2023
- Growing On Me: Permission to Land by The Darkness Turns 20 - September 16, 2023
- Heart and Soul: Sports by Huey Lewis & The News Turns 40 - September 15, 2023