There are two meanings to the word lush, and Ed Harcourt embodies them both. His reputation for enjoying a drink or two has won him comparison to Oliver Reed by some journos, but it is his ability to compose luxuriant music that caused his second full-length release, From Every Sphere, to be received with such anticipation.
Harcourt’s previous effort, Here Be Monsters, was a terrific album, full of fun, talent, and promise, but his follow-up is better. The penchant for experimentation that spawned the three minutes of feedback/noise in the middle of his full-length debut (he released mini-album Maplewood in 2000) has been more elegantly channeled in this release, and the result is a work of polished vagaries, delivered with a real swagger.
Here’s the secret to Harcourt’s allure: menace. Every song, no matter how serene it may initially sound, is party to this. Menace, be it musical or lyrical, is insidious and tantalizing when allied to beauty.
Lyrically, Harcourt has created his own imaginative world, unafraid to indulge a flourish of the fantastic. Singing of wolves, dinosaur bones, undertakers and nuns, he was certainly read the Brothers Grimm as a little boy. Fundamentally, however, he is a writer of love songs, despite the morbidity that flutters around the edge of even his more straightforward sentiments.
As musician, his gifts are staggering. He is a genuine multi-instrumentalist, and painstakingly lists every instrument he plays on the album. Right, deep-breath. Piano, Electric guitar, drums, bass, clavinet, bells, percussion, harmonica, slide guitar, acoustic guitar, glockenspiel, korg synthesizer, omnichord and a fun machine, whatever that is. Oh yeah, and a squeaky pump organ (it really squeaks . . . ). Yet, it is his voice that is his best instrument. He can go from seductive whisper to howl and growl without sounding ridiculous and he hits the high notes.
Track-by-track, you feel Harcourt and his producer Tchad Blake have taken their time over the album’s structure, and this gives rise to a reassuring sense of completeness. Opener “Bittersweetheart” is all flutes and simple piano, with a harmonious chorus, and, along with “Metaphorically Yours” and “The Birds Will Sing for Us”, it is a song of plaintive charm.
“All of Our Days Will Be Blessed” is the obvious first single: Harcourt’s habit of using an insistent verse to crescendo into a catchy chorus has no better example. However it is not the best song on the album. That honour is bestowed upon the mighty “Ghostwriter”. “Living up hollow tree holes / Making secret documents” howls a distorted Harcourt. The programmed beats, manic handclaps and sinister bass give it an infectious impetus and there is even what sounds like the cracking of an enormous whip and double-speed electric guitar solos.
The adrenaline rush of “Ghostwriter” is soon becalmed. “The Birds Will Sing for Us” is typical Harcourt. Many dismiss him as a pastoral songwriter, no doubt because he writes much of his music in his late grandmother’s country house in Sussex. However, the “edge” is inevitably there. The full chorus? “The birds will sing for us / And we all die in the end”. There is the occasional lyrical flaw. The gentle gem, “Sister Reneé”, with its bluesy harmonica and mellow piano, is compromised by the throwaway line “In down in a pit / With nowhere to sit”. That piano, over which Harcourt possesses obvious mastery, is played at the extremes in “Undertaker Strut” — booming one moment, tinkling the next.
Harcourt calls Tom Waits “the godfather” and his influence is continually apparent. “Undertaker Strut” and “Ghostwriter” would doubtless get the great man’s approval. Yet Harcourt does not make the mistake of the reverential rip-off; he simply displays good taste in what informs his wider musical manifesto. Indeed, Harcourt’s closest musical relative (certainly a first cousin) is Rufus Wainwright. Both indulge a certain kind of musical showiness and experimentation, while writing sophisticated pop songs. Their voices even sound distinctly similar at times. But this is only a passing resemblance. Harcourt’s influences are, of course, as diverse as his music suggests, yet the man is a true original, a treasure.