So, I am on a massive Ed Harcourt kick. Massive kick. As in, have listened to little else for the last month.
How can I do this? Well, for one thing, I have all his albums that were released on CD. (Oddly, for me, I haven't managed to pick up the download ones... Go figure, eh?) These are, for the curious, "Here Be Monsters" (2001), "From Every Sphere" (2003, and the first of his albums I listened to), "Strangers" (2004), "The Beautiful Lie" (2006) and, possibly my favorite of the lot, "Lustre," released last year.
Although I say that "Lustre" is, thus far, my favorite, it's kind of a moot point. Harcourt has maintained the level of freshness-of-vision found in his earliest records, while honing and maturing his sound. His material, too, has become more mature -- I'm listening to "Here Be Monsters" right now, and there's a lot of youthful self-image that, while leading to good songs, doesn't necessarily make sense with the creator himself: "Beneath the Heart of Darkness" is an old man's song, incongruously performed by a young man. With its imagery of slow death and outward darkness to hide pain, it really just doesn't make sense for a man who was then barely into his twenties. (Not that he shouldn't have written the song, and not that such subject matter can't be dealt with by younger people.) There is a touch of the absurd to it, of a man trying on hats in the attic to see which family figure he will become.
This air carries over into "From Every Sphere," but that album had a more polished sound -- more Harry Nilsson than an audibly-vocal'd Pastels. However, "From Every Sphere" carried a different tone lyrically, as well, and included more musical experimentation: "All of Your Days Will Be Blessed," for example, features a wheezy harmonium (which appealed to me greatly, since the house I lived in when the album came out also featured a wheezy harmonium, but I wasn't allowed to touch that one) and, although the mournful horns that appeared on "Here Be Monsters" also played a part in "From Every Sphere," there was more experimentation with a music-hall sound, and more inclusion of strings.
However, Harcourt's music-hall is a music-hall from an Angela Carter novel (I'm thinking, actually, of the puppet theatre in The Magic Toyshop). "Strangers" expanded on this, and branched out into other sounds: The full-on wailing of violin, voice and piano in "Let Love Not Weigh Me Down" is, while not necessarily mature, a lot more mature in its sound and in its ambition than similar exercises (such as the aforementioned "Beneath the Heart of Darkness"). But "Strangers" was a difficult album, not least because of its much bleaker lyrical outlook. "Let Love Not Weigh Me Down" is (rather obviously) not a love song, and other tracks -- from "The Music Box," with its Pearls Before Swine-ish tale of war and destruction, to "The Trap Door" and the obviously-titled "Loneliness" -- display a grimness not previously seen in Harcourt's work, even in those attic-adventurings from "Here Be Monsters."
Harcourt followed that with "The Beautiful Lie," an album that was both a return to form, in terms of a more varied lyrical content, and an obviously better album than Harcourt's prior efforts. "The Beautiful Lie" shows a young man now on the other side of 25, one who now has some experience of the world. It's the difference between the character of the creator of Nicholas Nickleby in his eponymous novel and Richard Carstairs in Bleak House -- he is conscious of being the same person, but also different: Capable of failure, capable of, indeed, become the guy in "Beneath the Heart of Darkness" if he's not careful.
"The Beautiful Lie" had guest appearances from people like The Magic Numbers, but these almost blend into the background: It's Harcourt's album through and through. "Visit From the Dead Dog" is a good example of this. Although it displays the same poppy sensibility of Harcourt's early albums, the dichotomy between the lyrical subject and the rather cheerful music is well-handled and does not seem forced. The slower songs on the album are contrasted well with the manic moments. Look, for example, at the transition between "Scatterbraine" (which is as manically annoying as the additional "e" at the end of the word would hint) and "Rain on the Pretty Ones," which has more than a hint of Harcourt's earlier song, "The Wind Through the Trees." But while "The Wind Through the Trees" seemed a little dull after the exuberance of tracks like "The Apple of My Eye," "Rain on the Pretty Ones" seems fitting after the caper-film madness of the preceding song. Its sadness is the proper antidote to mania.
But of course, this leads us to "Lustre," Harcourt's most recent release. Previously, I stated that this was my favorite of Harcourt's albums. This is not a difficult claim to make, for me: Essentially, on this album, Harcourt looks at the things he has played with in the past, the hat's he's tried on, so to speak, and reexamines them as an actual adult. The feral gothiness that characterized tracks like "Undertaker Strut" ("From Every Sphere") is present in "Heart of a Wolf," but this time, it makes sense -- it's addressed to someone, rather than just pulling up imagery. The poppy sensibility, yes: "A Secret Society" and "Do As I Say Not As I Do" seem like "Shanghai" ("Here Be Monsters") and "Kids (Rise From the Ashes)" ("Strangers") but with a happiness, a pleasure in the creator's place in life, that was not present in earlier albums.
There is an explanation for this, of course: In the making of his last album, Harcourt got married and, more recently, the couple had their first child. But that happiness, that lack of desperation, has been translated into an album that is profoundly enjoyable: Harcourt's contentment is catching. Where other artists, on reaching familial bliss, often retire (especially artists in Harcourt's position -- caught, rather, between the underground and the bright lights of fame and fortune, and who can really busk on the subway stairs?) or make music that is kind of... boring, Harcourt has not done that. "Lustre" is a strong album, in more ways than one: Sonically, of course, lyrically, yes, but also spiritually. There's a fortitude behind the "Lustre," and I hope that Harcourt continues to explore this rich but largely unmined vein of human emotion.