Desperation, love, murder, God, and redemption have always been favorite themes of both the Australian post-punk forefathers and the pantheon of American country. And the common thread among the alternative gothic rock icons of Australia — The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Crime & the City Solution, Simon Bonney — is Mick Harvey. So it shouldn’t be surprising just how naturally Harvey marries equal parts of his past collaborations with the influence of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Sr. on his first real solo album, One Man’s Treasure.
Although he has produced a multitude of soundtracks and two Serge Gainsbourg tributes (1995’s Intoxicated Man and 1999’s Pink Elephants), One Man’s Treasure is the first time we see Harvey standing completely on his own. But based on his past accomplishments, the results aren’t unexpected. Your heart begins to ache as the layered atmospherics, the languid delivery, and the mournful vocal expression swirls and builds throughout the collection of songs.
Harvey exploits all the best qualities of the Australian post-punk/American country music movements from the very beginning with Lee Hazelwood’s “First St. Blues”. This piano-led hymn sung from a proud beggar’s point of view asks the listener to “spare a dime / for just a little glass of wine / and buddy don’t you pity me / just one drink and then I’ll be / in a world all my own / the only place I call home.” The sincerity of Harvey’s delivery will have you reaching for your wallet and willingly handing over all the cash you have on hand. And when Harvey’s baritone exclaims “I once believed, still do, that all I’d ever need was you” on the third track, “Louise”, the regret threatens to pull your chest open and grab hold of your heart. It’s easy to picture these tracks as having been plucked from the repertoire of the late Johnny Cash.
Hank Williams, Sr. seems to show up during “Demon Alcohol”, alternately haunting and inhibiting Harvey through a brooding and dark descent. Capturing the futility and emptiness of a man between benders, Harvey painfully communicates the intoxicating temptation of the Devil on an addict’s shoulder. Williams reappears again later and most obviously on Harvey’s cover of Guy Clark’s “Hank Williams Said It Best”, a line from which the album takes its name. The Clark cover is coupled with a tremendous reading of Robbie Fulks’ “Bethelridge”. The vocal work and accompaniment here is a dead-ringer for Harvey’s frequent collaborator Bonney, specifically recalling his contributions to Wim Wender’s Faraway, So Close! soundtrack.
Where his work with Cave often comes off claustrophobic, Harvey’s work here never leaves the listener gasping for air. Light streams through Harvey’s reading of his friend’s words on “Come into My Sleep”, rescued from the b-side of Cave’s “(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?”. When he asks his love to “bind my dreams up in your tangled hair” and “take your accusations and recriminations and toss them into the ocean blue / take your regrets and impossible longings and scatter them across the sky behind you,” the longing for redemption is plain, but never smothering — a perfect aural interpretation of how love should be.
Since the late ’70s, Harvey has proved himself as a celebrated producer and arranger. And the multi-instrumentalist, who plays all the instruments on the album, with the exception of the string quintet, does nothing to tarnish his reputation with this album. The collection of emotionally brutal songs found on One Man’s Treasure is delivered with the vision of a cowboy looking at life through the bottom of a glass of whisky.