Searching for the Heart of Darkness . . . A Bit Too Bloody Hard
He’s 23 years old, he’s a multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter, he seems like a good person and has lots of quirky quotes, and this, his Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, is full of beauty and hooks and chops and fascinating choices: if Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith were teen rock critics in Weird Science, they would have invented Ed Harcourt instead of Kelly LeBrock. Here Be Monsters is as adorable as it is enigmatic, which is always a good double. So why am I not completely taken in by it? We’ll look at that later. Let’s talk about all the good stuff first.
First off: Harcourt’s voice. It’s a great voice, husky but capable of swooping up into a highish tenor or even semi-credible falsetto. He can whisper and soar and testify—not bad for a white kid from Sussex. I’ve read a lot about how Harcourt’s voice reminds them of Thom Yorke. This is laziness of the first order on the part of any music writer dumb enough to try. Sure, maybe a bit here and there, like on album-shutter “Like Only Lovers Can”, or maybe the chorus on “Hanging With the Wrong Crowd”. And perhaps a touch on “Birds Fly Backwards”. And, yeah, sure, so his vocal work on “Hanging With the Wrong Crowd” sounds a bit like some of those things on The Bends. But his basic approach to a song is very different from Yorke’s: Harcourt’s attack is more utilitarian, and less about-itself. And unlike Yorke’s last few outings, where he sounds like he’s trying very hard to be a robot because being a human is too hard, Harcourt always sounds like he’s trying to connect, person to person.
And that leads us to the grab-bag of music styles here. It’s always good to hear the youngsters with the big ears. Harcourt is down with a lot of music—I can’t think of many genres that aren’t used on this album. Check that: there isn’t much salsamuffin stylee here, nor am I hearing a ton of Bulgarian 7/4-time wedding music. Other than that, he’s got it covered: piano pop (I caught flashes of everyone from Elton John and Billy Joel to Ben Folds and Sarah McLaughlan), “new wave” (“Birds Fly Backward” is Television’s “Prove It” with a touch of doo-wop), American soul (“Apple of My Eye” is some loverman stuff for sure), grunge, lots of mariachi horns straight off Love’s Forever Changes, techno here and there, Britpop everywhere, even some rudimentary beat-boxing; it’s all here, and it’s all over the place.
This might be a problem if we don’t end up getting to know (or getting to like) Ed Harcourt himself, but that’s not a problem. He’s pretty open about who he is. He’s a romantic fellow, as we learn from “Shanghai”: “Looks like we might have made it / Put on your silkworm dress / You look so beautiful / And I look such a mess”. In fact, he’s a little too romantic, willing to debase himself for that special lady on “She Fell Into My Arms”: “Well I burned all my traveler’s checks / Just to show you my respect / Then I hung myself out to dry / And you looked at me and asked me why”. He’s also somewhat of a catcher-in-the-rye type, saving hotties from their parents’ disapproval (in order to replace it with his own?) in “Hanging With the Wrong Crowd”. So Ed’s all about the women, which is fine for him.
He’s also all about the mysterious darkness, too. Some of the most beautiful songs here have a creepy vibe that redeems them utterly. “Those Crimson Tears” would be a lovely weepy stringy waltz, except for the subject matter, which appears to be that the song’s protagonist is genetically pre-disposed towards hurting himself, and others: “Those crimson tears / Drip on the floor / Drip on the bar”. Anchoring the record at the #7 slot is a great achievement, “Beneath the Heart of Darkness”. This song is almost insanely slow, marking some scenario that’s too mysterious to follow—something about a dying machine—with a gorgeous violin arrangement and a muted trumpet making it all okay until the 3:02 mark, at which point it turns into a death-metal dirge for two and a half minutes, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, before going back to its original self.
Then there’s the sweet little number called “Wind Through the Trees”. Again, a soft slow piano-based ballad that is drenched in both orchestral color . . . and blood! There’s no storyline, so it’s a little confusing to hear “Oh my deserted one / You must put down your father’s gun” and then try to piece that together with “Shot through the chest and head / She killed everybody dead / And the wind blew once more through the trees / Now she’s coming straight back to me”—who is this “me”? Is it the father whose gun she used? Is it a boyfriend? Some kind of sympathetic detective? It’s very unclear, especially when we consider the lovely chorus: “Running from the dark / Look what you have done / But you can’t run from me / ‘Cause I’m the wind through the trees”. So it really is the wind? Hell, I don’t know, but it’s okay, because Ed doesn’t know either. It’s not supposed to mean anything; it’s just supposed to be creepy, and it succeeds. But it would have been even better had it made sense.
And I guess ultimately that’s where I jump off the bandwagon; he’s just trying too damned hard to be weird and edgy. He sounds so much more confident on the happy tracks than he does the freaky ones—that’s why the record ends so wonderfully. We go straight from the get-away-from-it-all pop of “Shanghai” to “Like Only Lovers Can”, which is slow funky hubba-hubba that sounds joyful and sexy and everything that Harcourt feels in his soul. All that other hullaballoo, guns and crimson tears and hearts of darkness? It seems forced.
“Here Be Monsters” is what they used to write on maps to indicate uncharted territory, the fear of the unknown. I think Ed Harcourt feels like he should be looking for these monsters, Col. Kurtz deep in the jungle, the scary ephemera of the dark side. But I also don’t think his heart’s really in it.
Of course, he’s only 23 years old.