An annoying strategy of music critics is inserting themselves into a review by recounting a “musical coming of age” experience, in the process spending more time talking about themselves than sizing up a current release. That is what I’m about to do: when I heard Mick Harvey’s Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants for the first time, my reasons for loving the Bad Seeds became so much clearer. Two albums of Serge Gainsbourg cover songs of course have more than a bit to do with Gainsbourg himself, but my mind doesn’t consider things in that manner. Instead, I became awed by Harvey’s arrangements and—from the beauty applied to “Overseas Telegram” through the devastatingly dirty Nick Cave-and-Anita Lane rendition of “Je taime…moi non plus”—I realized Harvey’s musical input was as integral to the Bad Seeds as Cave’s sterling lyricism and bleak pizzazz. The contributions Harvey has made to the solo work of Rowland S. Howard and Robert Forster—as well as his stint in Crime and the City Solution and his rich musical relationship with PJ Harvey—has been unmistakable.
Harvey’s sole original-material solo album didn’t come until 2011’s Sketches from the Book of the Dead; whether it was worth the wait is up for conjecture. On one hand, songs like the Rowland S. Howard tribute “October Boy” and “How Would I Leave You” were as lovely as any of his cover songs and soundtrack work. However, the album didn’t serve as a revelatory coming-out for Harvey as a original artist.
Four (Acts of Love) reconciles Harvey’s solo catalogue: a song cycle in three acts, it features some Harvey originals propping up four covers, three of which serve as the centerpieces of their respective acts. There is even a cinematic instrumental (the lonesome “Midnight on the Ramparts”). Little of the original material really sticks, although this may be partly because of its brevity. Songs like “I Wish That I Were Stone” are busting with potential, but humbly step aside in order to allow something like a folk-rock version of the Saints’ “The Story of Love” do the talking.
The cover songs pay off in most cases, and the journey to them is interesting enough. “God Made the Hammer” and “Fairy Dust” have all the drama and wistfulness that is so common in much of what Harvey does when left to his own devices. The cover of Exuma’s “Summertime in New York” is particularly vibrant, turning the easy swing of the original into something as oppressive as the NYC heat. A more conventional cover choice, like Roy Orbison’s “Wild Hearts,” is just as welcome, its spare arrangement and Harvey’s tired vocals cutting straight to the song’s wounded core. The PJ Harvey composition, “Glorious”, features some highly distinct Polly Harvey-esque guitar playing, something which is perennially welcome.
Despite the novel cover tunes and its ambitious presentation, Four (Acts of Love) has plenty of assets, but nothing as awe-inspiring as when Harvey is at his most “on,” as a collaborator, interpreter, or otherwise. It does make you wish Harvey had left a few fingerprints on Push the Sky Away, but not that much. In the end, Four (Acts of Love) is abstruse and unpredictable, yet all too fleeting. To use another music critic method of trying to end a review on an oh-so-winking note, Four (Acts of Love is a bit like a love affair that didn’t quite live up to its potential.