For the last 15 years, singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt has been quietly releasing gorgeously realized albums that have subsequently garnered him more of a cult following than full-blown commercial success or name recognition. This time frame is the most significant element of that statement: were Harcourt to have released any of his seven albums during the height of the singer-songwriter era, each would have been hailed as an undisputed classic, an ideal of the genre. Unfortunately, the majority of listeners in the 21st century have, for whatever reason, chosen to ignore these types of nuanced performers.
Perhaps their approach, one which places the emphasis on composition, both lyrical and musical, has proven too esoteric, too time-consuming for modern listeners. Given the sheer volume of new music washing over us each and every day, the average listener cannot be faulted for missing a great deal. There will always be the larger, critically-hailed releases that also happen to have a fair amount of strategically deployed marketing aiding their rise to the top of tastemaker’s year-end lists. But for every one of these marquee indie releases, there are a handful of equally worthy releases that pass by unnoticed.
Regardless of this gross oversight, an artist like Harcourt deserves any and all recognition thrown his way. On his latest, Furnaces, he explores both a darker sound and thematic overview, one which will no doubt make the acquisition of new fans all the more problematic. And yet those who have found themselves swept up in his retro-futurist approach to the admittedly staid singer-songwriter genre will find themselves only that much more enamored.
As a working musician in the 21st century attempting to put forth their original music for general consumption, the goal should no longer be the traditional rock star paradigm. Given the nature of the business and the industry as a whole, this particular model is no longer sustainable. The age of the full-blown rock star has come and gone. Instead, true success comes to those quietly putting out consistently exceptional albums that garner a fervent, albeit often quite small, following.
And yet this is a sustainable model that allows musicians like Harcourt to not only keep working, but continue to create the kinds of albums they want rather than what is expected to sell or rate high on prominent music blogs that have come to dictate what does and doesn’t resonate with a wider audience. Performing only to one’s own expectations and to those of a devoted fan base allows an artist to grow in a manner reminiscent of the heyday of the rock star, when labels would allow greater creative leeway and take a chance on a prestige artist who might not shatter sales records but still prove a consistent, steady seller.
In this, Ed Harcourt is an artist operating out of time. Furnaces offers no immediately accessible, hook-laden single designed to score an untold number of film and television promotional campaigns. Instead, it’s a slowly simmering, darkly unsettling collection of pop noir inhabiting the rarified air one would imagine Jeff Buckley to have laid claim to had he lived. And while songs like “Occupational Hazard” and “The World Is on Fire” may at times be reminiscent of the late Buckley, Harcourt proves himself less enamored of the sound of his own voice, using it more in tandem with the startlingly original arrangements rather than acting as the driving force behind each track.
To be sure, nothing on Furnaces would be deemed of the moment or belonging to 2016. But in a world where the flavor of the month has been winnowed down to the flavor of the minute, this stark remove from the mainstream (including the indie/underground, itself often indistinguishable from the modern mainstream) helps ensure these songs an existence well beyond this year alone. This type of staying power, this timelessness, is largely eschewed in favor of more zeitgeist-tapping singles and albums that immediately timestamp themselves, dated within mere weeks.
Instead, Harcourt relies on the simple, time-tested formula of good songwriting over prevailing trends. From the appropriately titled “Intro” on, he embarks on a slow and steady build that results in a dark, expansive exploration of his existing sonic palette paired with an air of seemingly bottomless melancholy. “The World Is on Fire” in particular is a fine distillation of all the best elements the album has to offer, with its gradual build throughout the verses into an explosive chorus that finds Harcourt pushing his voice to its natural limits without falling back on an ugly timbre to get the point across.
“Loup Garou” sounds like late ‘90s Radiohead without the lyrical abstraction and the ironic techno-phobic obsession. With its surging lead guitar line, clattering percussion, and plangent piano underpinning the track, it’s a song out of time, its references immediately identifiable. This is perhaps no more the case than on the back-to-back combination of “Nothing But a Bad Trip” and “You Give Me More Than Love”. On the former, Harcourt relies on a mid-tempo, minor key melody bathed in swirling atmospherics and cavernous vocals, while the latter is a gorgeous slow-burn ballad that builds to a climax of which Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay would be envious.
Yet there remains a knowing lack of immediacy inherent in Furnaces, making it the type of album with which the listener must spend a dedicated amount of time to fully process and appreciate for what it is. With so many subtleties within each track, it proves an ideal headphone album designed for late night listening. With Furnaces, Ed Harcourt has continued his impressive winning streak with both true artistry and singularly-focused aplomb.