For an album that is so emphatically uncool, Strangers is one evil cold crowd of songs. It’s the sonic equivalent of a wintry December night; the power and the wine’s out, and all that’s left to do is sing. These songs burn with an intensity that only a blizzard would require, but somehow manage not to send the whole cabin into flames. With his heart sutured to his larynx, Ed Harcourt discards detachment and assumes a drunken passion. The whole affair is seriously intoxicating for the listener too, as Harcourt parades us through raucous, rousing, reflective, romantic and back again.
For a guy who has been simultaneously written up as a prodigious talent and written off as a hackneyed narcissist, it seems like he’s finally struck an unimpeachable balance of the two. “The Storm Is Coming” is an apt title to initiate the outburst, as a surprising guitar scorch begins the album. Like a handful of songs on Strangers, this one is damn catchy, and might even coax a few fists into the air. This triumphant stab typifies the songs to follow, as Harcourt is able to shade the predictable singer-songwriter model with a precarious sensibility. His voice creaks and folds with fragile bombast, and for the most part, his compositions are considerably distinct. Comparisons to Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright certainly make sense, but the consistent personality of Strangers affirms Harcourt’s unique talent.
This, his third full-length release, is definitely a breakthrough album for the erratic piano man. Strangers purges the half-baked preciousness of his Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Here Be Monsters, and rejects the overbearing artifice of 2003’s From Every Sphere. Instead of sounding like it was recorded in a laboratory by a vain technician, Strangers has a homespun quality that counts for much of the album’s charisma. It’s no strange accident, either. According to Harcourt’s bio, the album was recorded at “Grey Machine Studio in the middle of the [haunted?] woods in Sweden”. Shit, I can just imagine all the ghosts and wolves that were stalking the studio space. Perhaps more significant than geography was the man responsible for keeping Harcourt in control. Sweden’s indie scene’s answer to Smokey the Bear, Jari Haapalainen, produced the ramshackle sessions and played on most of the songs. Thankfully, he brings the same biting authenticity that he supplied for the International Noise Conspiracy and the Concretes. Although it’s never quite clear the exact effect the producer has on an album, Strangers‘s impressive evolution from Harcourt’s previous work guarantees Haapalainen was an important influence.
Throughout, the album buzzes with interesting instrumentation and cunningly arranged little nooks and crannies. Somehow though, it never suffers from overproduction or a surplus of ideas. The songs are what count here. And the songs are so realized that Harcourt gets away with lame titles like “Born in the ’70s” and “This One’s for You”. The epitome of this album’s untainted success comes from another pathetically titled gem, “Let Love Not Weight Me Down”. Harcourt balances explosive dynamics with a simple piano stomp and some zealotry on the strings to create some wonderful affecting pop balladry. This is the stuff Chris Martin’s nocturnal emissions are made of. The following track might even be more stunning; “Something to Live For” takes Tom Waits’s glass and fills it with a romantic whimsy that could bring Nick Drake to tears. Wait a minute — do you think that maybe… Drake and Buckley are haunting the dark forests of southern Sweden? No way, Harcourt had to do this album on his own. Those guys did haunting so well on earth that they’re definitely in heaven now, drinking bottomless milkshakes with unicorns and ’50s pinup girls.
Ed Harcourt hasn’t reinvented the wheel on Strangers, but the first six songs alone are well worth the price of admission. And despite a somewhat feeble conclusion, this album kills. Harcourt, with the help of Haapalainen, has raised his voice above the touchy-feely-singer-songwriter crowd and it sounds fantastic. This type of fare isn’t usually for everyone, but Strangers‘s cleverly and intimately drawn songs would supply enough warmth to melt away the coolest cat’s detachment.