“I’m the man who time forgot,” balefully intones Ed Harcourt at the end of this, his seventh studio album. It’s a typically wry piece of self-deprecation, but there’s a grain in truth there too – despite the undoubted talent, the Mercury nominations and the critical praise, there’s a nagging feeling that he’s always remained somewhat on the periphery.
Back Into The Woods, therefore, sounds like a clean slate. The inaugural release on the new CCCLX label, written in a month and recorded over a six hour period in Abbey Road Studios, it’s the simple sound of Harcourt accompanied by a piano or a guitar. It’s short, stark and rather lovely, evoking names like Jeff Buckley and All Days Are Nights-era Rufus Wainwright. If austerity as an economic concept has become discredited in recent years, it’s a sound that suits Harcourt down to the ground.
Opening track The Cusp And The Wane addresses Harcourt’s commercial under-achievements in a typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, namechecking luminaries such as Mozart and William Blake, before concluding “you have always loved me, even when I’ve been insane, thanks for riding with me on the cusp and the wane”. The personal subject matter continues with the beautifully written Hey Little Bruiser, an ode to Harcourt’s child, tinged with yet more self-deprecation: “You got the good parts from your mother, and the bad parts from me.” The additional violin strings (courtesy of Harcourt’s wife Gita) mix perfectly with his rolling piano chords.
It’s a strong start to the record, which becomes even stronger when Wandering Eye is taken into consideration – a swooping, dramatic epic full of stabbing piano chords and unashamedly romantic lyrics (“I remember when I first saw you, I couldn’t move, I was paralysed”) . When the chorus of backing vocals kick in, it just soars magnificently.
After such a positive opening, it’s inevitable that the album falls away slightly. When the production is as stark as it is here, it throws more focus on the strength of the songs. When it’s tracks like the aforementioned, or the lovely The Pretty Girls, that’s fine. When they’re not so strong – the title track, or Murmur In My Heart – they tend to meander by without leaving much of an impression.
The tempo could be a problem for some too – all nine tracks are stately, slow affairs, and the appearance of a ghostly guitar on Last Will And Testament and Murmur In My Heart doesn’t signal an upturn in pace. That’s not necessarily a problem – the guitar sound that Harcourt produces is evocative of Jeff Buckley’s on his version of Hallelujah – but the lack of variety does sometimes lead to some of these tracks giving the impression of blending into each other.
Yet that’s just a minor quibble, and with another full-length reportedly on the way, 2013 seems to be shaping up to be a vintage year for Harcourt fans. He may be, in his own words, “the man who time forgot”, but there’s a small corner of the world forever grateful for little missives like this one.