Album review

Bittersweet Nothings

Raymond Carver's opinion was that happiness only comes when you forget to think about death, ambition or love (in that order). In which case, conveniently for us, Ed Harcourt isn't lined up for too much happiness too soon. His second full album is all about death and love, and it's impressively ambitious. Lucky for him Carver was being uncharacteristically grandiose, rather than dryly accurate.

Harcourt cites Carver as an influence, besides Salinger, Tom Waits and David Lynch. Others have tagged him alongside such historic figures as Harry Nilsson and Brian Wilson. That's the trouble with being labelled, nominally, a "singer-songwriter". The term reeks of the past, and a contained, unstartling, unthreatening quaintness. Whereas Harcourt wants to be timeless and wants to be timeless now. His songs are not quaint. They're as vitriolic and bitchy as Costello's, as wounded and romantic as Alex Chilton's, as baroque and demented as Cave's before he eased into self-parody. He revels in the dying art of wordplay, yet the emotion's authentic. And musically, yes, he likes to muck around with things like Waits, but he hangs onto a pop consciousness, a love of classic structure and craft, which veils his songs' darkness, but only superficially. From Every Sphere is the ultimate grower, which moves, in your mind, from quite nice to utterly compelling and addictive over a matter of days, or better, nights.

Harcourt, still only 25 but purportedly much-travelled, originally conceived the follow-up to his Mercury-nominated debut Here Be Monsters (2001) as a double album, The Ghosts Parade. That confused people, so he scaled it down to these 12 songs, and shifted the emphasis from ghosts and dreams to love and loss. But there are still a lot of ghosts and dreams in there. Mingling with the love and loss. As they do.

It's beautifully produced with the adaptable Tchad Blake, who's worked with Waits, Low, Pearl Jam and many others. The songs always stay within the bounds of what's recognisable as a 'song', yet there's a sinister, savage, subterranean smell to them. On a cursory listen you might think that Harcourt makes the perfect Later With Jools Holland music—adult and smart but perhaps a touch cosy, witty, correct, white. Manageable. It is, though, much darker than it seems, and for all the fleeting shafts of huffy humour, its overriding feel is of someone wishing for something they can't have. Which is, in case I'm being unclear, very high praise. It don't mean a thing without the yearning.

"Bittersweetheart" sets the timbre at once. "If I could only see straight, I wouldn't be lonely these days," he begins, precise piano and shuffly drums ushering in what James Stewart in Vertigo had diagnosed as acute melancholia. The singer questions his own worth, admits that his outlook on life can be bleak, yet allows neither himself or the listener to wallow. Basically, it's quite a chirpy song. But the key, as for the rest of the album, lies in the skilfully gauged vocals and that word "bittersweet". If the record's anything at all, it's bittersweet.

"All Of Your Days Will Be Blessed", the first single, might seem perky enough, with its uplifting chorus and "oooh"s. But a bluebird's died in winter in the first line—dreams down, "the engine's run out of steam", and when the lovers "fly away", they do so "into the void". Like another major British work of poetic genius, The Faces' "Cindy Incidentally", the song lulls you into thinking it's a beacon of positivity when in fact it's full-on fatalism.

Are we getting too bespectacled and lit-crit here? Harcourt is, after all, enjoyed by people with high-maintenance haircuts who think, say, Groove Armada are important. He is, in a minor way, trendy—but "Jetsetter" proclaims "never have I been part of any scene". It's that urge for timelessness again, though he's pushing it with "I'm Not Postmodern", a lyrical excerpt which, let's face it, doesn't rock. "Ghostwriter" is a Jim Jarmusch riff, a man in a prison cell banging on a drainpipe with a toothbrush. "The Birds Will Sing For Us" is another song that reveals itself to be about death, the drinking song raised to an art form. Harcourt's voice is loaded with sandpaper and tiny bits of glass.

"Sister Reneé" and "Bleed A River Deep" are gorgeous waves of considered angst—"I've become more withdrawn, since I was first-born"—tempered by a restrained yet regal production. Then on "Watching The Sun Come Up", Harcourt lightens up—it's a celebratory-sounding song that doesn't then reveal itself to be a hymn to the finite (although, on close analysis, it is about getting over somebody). It's violently happy, perhaps, and faintly comparable to Dexys Midnight Runners' peerless "This Is What She's Like" in the way it builds rhythmically, stops and soars. The voice—for most of the album masterfully disciplined—is hoarse with passion. But by "Fireflies Take Flight" and "Metaphorically Yours", morning has broken again, like a tramp's heart. There are demons and wolves and, in the latter, the corking couplet: "Oh, baby, just admit, if both my wrists were slit/You'd bandage them with style and grace". It'd be a bit Tonight-Matthew-I'm-Going-To-Be-Tom-Waits if the song's conceits, melody and Carpenters-like backing vocals weren't so disarmingly lovely.

The seven-and-a-half-minute finale and title track is a disappointment. A slim chord pattern aspires to the status of trippy cosmic mantra, and, fixated on that to the point of neglecting the strengths of Harcourt's voice and lyrics, doesn't go anywhere, least of all to celestial heights. Throughout a fine album, Harcourt's dealt with mortality with the sussed swagger of Six Feet Under; here, he's just moaning. From Every Sphere, though, is among the first essential albums of the year, proud in the old-fashioned, never-out-of-style virtues of poetry and pathos. Gothic but never remotely 'goth', he walks the same rain-lashed streets as his American heroes, but his architecture is astounding.

Rating: 4 / 10


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