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Music Review: Ed Harcourt – Lustre

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In recent years, there has been an influx of “smart” singer-songwriters: artists who’ve spent time polishing their lyrics to a hard shine, while making sure the music is of equal quality to complement those ideas. Following in the footsteps of elder statesmen such as Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, and Phil Ochs, modern songsmiths like Rufus Wainwright, Damien Rice, Neko Case, and, certainly, Ed Harcourt, take inspiration from their heroes to turn out witty, intelligent songs. Ed Harcourt might not be as familiar to listeners as the other artists on this list, but the quality of his work should guarantee him a place within their ranks.

On Lustre, Harcourt’s new release, he proves he can indeed produce thought provoking lyrics and marry them to rich, memorable melodies. The album begins with the sound of an angelic choir, which Harcourt joins to sing the title tune. The song “Lustre” is filled with lines like, “Lustre from the ruby red blood on my hands when you pull out all the thorns”, and “Lustre when the dream is dead”. The lustre Harcourt sings of is beautiful, but shines solely on death and despair. Is he saying that the most tragic times can be overcome or simply bemoaning his sad fate? It’s left up to the listener to decide.

Elvis Costello is a master of laying upbeat melodies over dark,unsettling lyrics. Harcourt proves he has mastered this art, as well. In “Do As I Say Not As I Do”, he sings of “impending doom” and “a ship on the horizon with a menacing metal harpoon”, while handclaps and oohs and ahhs turn the gloom laden scenario into a poppy singalong.

Lyrics like “It’s not easy to be happy and get away with it” (“Haywire”) and “I’m a recipe for disaster”(“Lachrymosity”) run rampant through the album. But Harcourt conjures up such fine melodies, it is sometimes easy to overlook the desperation in the songs. This is why the material never gets too heavy handed.

This despair running through the album has to lead somewhere, and in the case of Harcourt’s most evocative hero, it is into a mental hospital. Easily the most haunting song on the album, “So I’ve Been Told” is sung from the point of view of a resident of an psychiatric institution.

Although our hero does not escape the asylum, in his parting shot he leaves us with an strange sort of optimism: “Ghosts are calling out my name again /Saying they want to be my friends /Waiting for the moment I can join them/telling me the end is not the end.”

Can an album filled with such melancholy musings leave its listener feeling that, ultimately,everything is going to work out alright? In this case, yes, since Harcourt’s songs, no matter how dark, seem borne of passion, truth, and an underlying trace of hope.

Harcourt recorded Lustre, his fifth studio album, in Bear Creek Studios, a “cabin-like establishment nestled in the forest north of Seattle”. He was ably assisted by co-producer Ryan Hadlock (Blonde Redhead, The Gossip, Ra Ra Riot) and the Langley Sisters to make Lustre one of the most impressive releases so far this year.

Lustre will be released on June 15th. Tracks from the album are available to stream at his official website.

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