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.