Now that I’m starting to geeze – with a child who is a legal adult – most very young singer-songwriters sound either adolescent and callow or precocious and overreaching to my graying ears. I know, between the two you can’t win if you’re a musical youth, but that’s why they have Triple A radio, kid.
There are of course many exceptions to the rule: Norah Jones is certainly one, but so is the tremendous 24-year old Englishman Ed Harcourt, whose first full-length CD Here Be Monsters hit stores in the U.S. in late-March.
I have been trying for two days to pin down Harcourt’s classic, melodic, but up-to-the-moment and experimental sound, and I think I have it: Here Be Monsters is as if Jeff Buckley was singing lead for Tindersticks, with a little Hunky Dory-era Bowie and Travis/Coldplay thrown in for good measure. Harcourt loves the ringing physical purity of the strummed acoustic guitar layered with a sturdy but unobtrusive drum, some way-up-high bells tinkling out a descending countermelody of languid beauty, an unforced but intensely PRESENT vocal, and bold electric guitar flourishes for emphasis and violin occasionally sawing through for poignancy.
Hey, I just described the exceptional first song on Monsters, “Something In My Eye.” I love the relatively young Brits like Harcourt, Travis, Coldplay, even David Grey who are secure enough to not fear beauty. Deep beauty took its leave from popular music for the most part between the punk era and the grunge era – chased away by insecurity, aggression and angst – but has made a welcome comeback of late.
Next is the slightly sinister, “God Protect Your Soul,” with a rumbling low-end piano and bass drum backbeat riff periodically filigreed with horns, trading appearances with an airy fantasia section presenting a convincing – Harcourt is always convincing – yin/yang duality that has something to do with building a wall around himself. There is apprehension here, but no Eels-like despair.
“She Fell Into My Arms” is ideal single material in a perfect world, the most overtly Jeff Buckley-like of Harcourt’s vocals: soulful, insinuating, sly. More rolling piano and offbeat horns punctuate an almost New Orleans feel in the chorus:
- And if you need to kiss me
Then, you’ll definitely miss me
When I’m gone
Once Monsters is on you won’t want Harcourt gone for some time. Per MTV News, Harcourt
- grew up in the remote English village of Lewes, known chiefly for its annual Guy Fawkes Day gathering at which townspeople congregate to burn effigies of Pope Paul V and other historical figures. Harcourt eventually left the nest and formed the pop-punk outfit Snug. “It was amazing,” Harcourt said. “We had such good fun, but I was writing songs that were very different and weren’t really working out.”
But Harcourt wasn’t just a small-town boy. His father was a diplomat, so the family traveled quite a bit. He says he can remember being convinced the Swedes were spying on him through a bathroom wall in Stockholm. He also did hard time in a boarding school, dressing “up as soldiers once a week, pathetic.”
After Snug, the usual odd jobs like waiter, chef-in-training, and circus geek (I made that one up) supported him while he wrote close to 400 songs, which were whittled down to 11 for the CD. Drawing two more disparate but appropriate names out of the musical influence hat, Harcourt told the MTV interviewer,
- “It’s the Beatles meets Tom Waits, I guess. That’s what a lot of people say.”
There is certainly Tom Waits in the stout-hearted melancholy of “Those Crimson Tears,” and there is a fascinating smash-up of Sgt Pepper falsetto melodicism and My Bloody Valentine-like drunken guitar on “Hanging With the Wrong Crowd.”
Sometimes Harcourt IS the wrong crowd, as he told an interviewer from his Canadian label EMI,
- “I smashed my piano at a gig recently,” giggles Ed, crackling with malicious glee. “The crowd weren’t paying any attention, and I was getting more and more irate. It got so bad I picked up my stool, smashed it onto my piano and yelled ‘Thank you and good night!’. I’ve done it before – I do get a little carried away at times. I’m the Yngwie J. Malmstein of the piano!”
…”All this ‘New Acoustic Movement’ crap, it all sounds completely insipid to me, it doesn’t connect with real emotions. I’m a very passionate, driven, sometimes aggressive person, And that comes across in my music.”
“Beneath the Heart of Darkness” opens with a shuffling, jazzy, late night urban feel oddly reminiscent of Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River” from Born to Run, before the Jeff Buckley voice returns to reveal what goes on beneath that heart. A cacophonous art noise middle section and extended denouement throws Harcourt into the land of Sonic Youth, or Flaming Lips in their wildest sonic landscapes; the latter is fitting as the song features additional production and mixing from Dave Fridmann of Lips fame.
This is a brilliant singer-songwriter with an unlimited future, but with a present good enough to have produced what may be the album of the year.