Originally released in 2006 via EMI and Heavenly Records, Ed Harcourt’s quintessential fifth record, The Beautiful Lie, has already been released once to critical acclaim. What, therefore, remains to be said about it?
Well, for a start, it’s still a beautiful record. Orchestral and groovy in all the right places, it’s an album that exhibits Harcourt’s impeccable sense of arrangement as well as his brilliance as a lyricist. A kind of unsung, less cheesy Sufjan Stevens, Harcourt channels his musical virtuosity with a subtlety that often evokes the late Jeff Buckley.
After all, for such an exceptionally gifted vocalist, Harcourt’s instincts are unusually sharp (one need only watch an episode of American Idol to realize that vocal chops and good taste don’t always go hand in hand). It’s his versatility, though, that’ll really jump out you. On the disco-y single, “Visit from the Dead Dog” (which features some humble jazz guitar from Blur’s Graham Coxon), he’s loquacious and slippery; on the sober “Last Cigarette”, measured and husky; while on “Until Tomorrow Then” he’s as impassioned as any choked-up Baptist minister, demanding of his congregation, “But do you know what true love is!?”
Lyrically, a good deal of The Beautiful Lie is dominated by the themes of romance and love. Whether Harcourt’s rattling the roof-beams with plaintive yowls on the bombastic “Revolution in the Heart” or wrestling with the internal demons of loneliness and desperation on a melancholy ballad like “Late Night Partner”, the ecstasy and heartache of human relationships retain pride of place most of the way through.
A love song’s success is, however, totally reliant on its mode of conveyance, and it’s in the delivery department that Ed Harcourt most naturally excels. The guy very clearly has ideas spilling out of his head (he’s rumored to have written hundreds of songs), but it’s the way he handles these ideas that makes him the superb recording artist that he is today.
On the seriously eerie “Braille”, for example, guitarist Leo Abrahams maps out a chilling soundscape while Harcourt duets with wife Gita, whose processed vocals come in like a message from some distant, otherworldly plain. On the aptly titled “Scatterbraine,” a woozy, Francophilic waltz abruptly switches time signatures, yielding up a pair of huge, celebratory choruses in exultation of a village idiot made good.
It’s successes like these that elevate The Beautiful Lie above the category of “ambitious middle record” and into the more rarified strata of bona fide masterpieces. Balance is the operative word on great rock records, and Harcourt walks the tightrope over excess with astonishing ease. There are more than enough catchy melodies here to make the album eminently listenable, while the lyrics and arrangements provide the substantive foundation and edge that make it an album you’ll want to listen to over and over again. As for shortcomings, there really aren’t any that come to mind. Harcourt’s sound might not suit everyone’s taste (it’s fairly dramatic), but to those who are taken with well-sung, introspective piano ballads and gloriously cascading anthems about Love and Death, The Beautiful Lie will in no way disappoint.