You might not recognize the name Mick Harvey, but the guy’s something of a legend on the Australian (and London) music scene. One of the founders of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (with which he still plays), as well as a producer, film score composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Harvey has proven over the course of more than 30 years that talent need not be flashy to furnish a viable career in the business. Two of Diamonds is his fourth release as a ‘solo artist’, but because two of those were Serge Gainsbourg tributes this feels more like a sophomore effort. Unlike 2005’s One Man’s Treasure, on which Harvey played every instrument himself, here he’s accompanied by a bunch of great musicians: James Johnston and Thomas Wylder from the Bad Seeds, with Rosie Westbrook on double bass, and a handful of others. The difference isn’t too conspicuous, but is best viewed as a slight expanding of range.
It’s not exactly a solo album. The songs are largely taken from other bands from the Australian alternative and American country canons. There are only two original Harvey compositions on Two of Diamonds, but instead of coming across as an album of covers there is something more personal to be found in this collection. The bands from which these songs are taken are fairly obscure, and there’s a strong sense of ownership in Harvey’s interpretations. These songs obviously have a great deal of meaning to the singer.
Musically, Two of Diamonds exists in that timeless place between country and folk. There’s a strong element of Nick Cave’s dark romanticism throughout, though Harvey doesn’t share Cave’s theatrical bass sound. Harvey is closer to Johnny Cash, all gravel and disappointment, occasionally, too, rising up towards something resembling hope. “Everything is Fixed” is pure Cash, a discursive blues reverie with Jesus, and a prison cell, and desperation: “I saw Jesus in my cell overnight where he was held / On some trumped-up charge we all knew was fixed”. “Sad Dark Eyes” (originally by Aussie band the Loved Ones) charms despite its genre-limitation. All dark strummed love-ballad reminiscent of Devastations, the refrain still rings: ” Put your ring on my finger / And calm your long red hair / Put on your sad eyes and tell me that you care”.
“A Walk on the Wild Side” isn’t the Lou Reed song, it’s from the soundtrack to a 1962 movie and composed by Elmer Bernstein and it’s similar to I’m Your Man-era Leonard Cohen: “One day of praying and six nights of fun / The odds against going to Heaven six to one”. Harvey never relies solely on the easy folk guitar arrangements, but is always finding a corner of new interest in auxiliary sounds of pizzicato strings or a ‘60s pop organ. One of the two Harvey originals here, “Little Star”, particularly stands out, somewhere between “Twinkle Twinkle” and Adam’s celestial desolation, the song makes us wish for a true solo album. Harvey could surely fill one with personal, twilight beauty and sadness.
Two of Diamonds, along with most of the rest of Mick Harvey’s oeuvre, will never be raised to the pedestal of hipster credibility. It’s too unassuming, too genre-specific, and has none of the studio tricks that draw us to someone like Matthew Dear. Dear’s essentially retreading the same ground as Harvey, as Cash, as Cave, as Cohen. Despite this, Mick Harvey will continue to create honest, affecting music for those who care to listen.