June 2011

Arts & Letters

After they are gone

By Robert Forster
Rowland S Howard and Mick Harvey at the Electric Screen, London, 1985. © David Arnoff
Mick Harvey’s ‘Sketches from the Book of the Dead’

Imagine this: Mick Harvey is a 52-year-old new artist and Sketches from the Book of the Dead is his debut album. He hasn’t been in bands or toured before; instead, after crafting music for a number of years in isolation, he suddenly surfaces with 11 songs and no backstory. But it isn’t so. Harvey has been in groups, two of which, The Birthday Party, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, are very well known indeed, having Cave as their lead singer. Harvey’s role in each band was as different as the groups are to each other. In The Birthday Party he was primarily a guitarist and keyboard player, in a group that played outrageous music but mostly kept to traditional instrumental roles. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds grew out of the disintegration of such structures and was, at inception and in its early years, a much looser and fractured group, with Harvey, the only other former Birthday Party member, roaming from drums to bass to keyboards and guitar. The Bad Seeds’ membership increased over the years, almost in correlation to the perfecting of Nick Cave’s song-craft; they toured, recorded and became famous. In 2009, after 25 years’ service and a musical partnership with Cave that went back even further, Mick Harvey left the Bad Seeds. So Sketches from the Book of the Dead (released in May) hasn’t appeared from out of the blue. But it is a debut album, if by that we mean the artist, no matter what their age or experience, has released their first full record of original songs.

There are four previous Mick Harvey solo albums. Intoxicated Man (1995) and Pink Elephants (1997) are devoted to the songs of the French songwriter and singer Serge Gainsbourg; One Man’s Treasure (2005) and Two of Diamonds (2007) each mix a wide range of maverick singer–songwriter material (Tim Buckley, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, David McComb) with a pair of Harvey self-penned numbers. In light of Sketches, it is tempting to see these records as a form of apprenticeship. Also to be taken into consideration is Harvey’s extensive film-soundtrack work and his production of and collaboration with other bands and artists. Most recently, he sang and played a variety of instruments on PJ Harvey’s latest LP, Let England Shake. Another presence to be factored in is Nick Cave, and the further influence of Harvey having been in The Bad Seeds for such a length of time. They can both be heard on the album, but this is a ball that can be bounced back: how great, in turn, was Harvey’s influence on Cave? The Bad Seeds were a group founded on and steered by Harvey’s musical aesthetic. What can be said is that the sound of his new album is spare: drums and strings – two constants in much of his music – are virtually gone, leaving a lead vocal sitting atop keyboards, upright bass and guitars.

Given Harvey’s admiration for Gainsbourg and the work of the American iconoclast Lee Hazlewood – best known for writing and producing Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots are Made for Walkin’’ – it is no surprise that Sketches comes wrapped in a concept. Both Gainsbourg and Hazlewood made song cycles that often turned on distinct themes. For Harvey, such an approach has the instant benefit of locking his album onto a subject; it also allows him to lay down the singer–songwriter’s burden of having to be autobiographical – although Harvey does sneak in some of this, if you know where to look. In fact, the first track is very personal, and included in its chorus is the gestation of the album’s subject. ‘October Boy’ is about Rowland S Howard, former guitarist of The Birthday Party, who died of liver cancer on 30 December 2009. The song’s shards of reverb-laden guitar are a sonic reference to Howard’s distinctive guitar style, and the lyrics an affectionate yet sober portrait of the man: “October Boy loved the Shangri-Las” and “October Boy took rock ’n’ roll poison / October Boy bought into that myth.” It also recounts a conversation between Howard and Harvey – “‘If you’re writing songs for The Book of the Dead / well write one, write one for me,’ he said” – that either places Howard as the originator of the album’s concept or responding, in his typically laconic manner, to an already-existing intention. Either way it is the album’s beginning.

The record is tightly structured, with ‘October Boy’ and the final track, ‘Famous Last Words’, acting as bookends on a nine-song run of ballads. Death – the circumstances of it, the people, the places, the absences, ghosts, memory, the tangle of lost love – is Harvey’s theme; it is one he examines with great inventiveness, presenting vignettes that, for once, live up to the oft-made comparison of songs with short stories or short films. These are sketches, with information imparted to various degrees. In a song such as ‘A Place Called Passion’, there is detail in the description of a young soldier dying on a First World War–like battlefield. Others turn on enigmatic storylines involving suicide: that of a country priest in ‘The Ballad of Jay Givens’ or, as in ‘Frankie T and Frankie C’, of a lover unable to go on living without his partner. Some are more knotted: the four bare stanzas of ‘That’s All, Paul’ outline a reckless driver losing his life and taking an unlucky passenger with him too; in ‘Rhymeless’ an admonishing finger is waved at absent (dead?) fathers who never sang at night to their children. There are one or two numbers whose meaning is more difficult to crack: the very twisting tale of ‘Two Paintings’, and ‘To Each His Own’, so cryptic and fragmentary – a reproach directed at God or imperialism? – that some of its emotional force is lost.

If this all sounds rather gloomy, it’s not. Harvey’s trick – in the same singular way he once couched the lyrical extremities and fireworks of Nick Cave in romantic instrumentation and arrangement – is to place his sad parables in an appealing sonic setting. His main asset is attractive melodies; they swirl and build, they are rich, and there isn’t a tuneless second on the album. The resulting songs aren’t big-chorused anthems, more strong verses that bloom into a chorus-like section. As a songwriter, Harvey has form: ‘Will You Surrender?’ on One Man’s Treasure is strong, and further back he co-wrote with Cave the best-ever Birthday Party single, ‘Release the Bats’, and also ‘The Mercy Seat’, which remains one of the central songs of the Bad Seeds’ career. These were scattered achievements, but Sketches shows Harvey to be capable of writing a group of good songs, inspired by an idea, galvanised by the passing of a close musical friend and, most importantly of all, without the safe haven of a band to run back to. Even if the songs are about the debris around death – the aftermath, the memories, the roads taken and those not – the artist singing them seems to have the thrill of freedom in his voice.

Sketches’ final track, ‘Famous Last Words’, snaps the album out of the ballads and out of the past and has Harvey stepping in to wrap it all up like a showmaster. It’s time to go – “I have not told half of what I saw / But that’s enough now, I’m bored with it all” – and time to place his own self in the passing parade of life and death – “Where is my clock? What is the hour? / Too late for fruit, too soon for flowers.” So there’s still time, in the album after Sketches I hope, to tell more of the other half that he saw.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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