It seems Mick Harvey is destined to remain forever defined by his links to long time collaborator Nick Cave. An integral member of both The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds, Harvey’s musical partnership with the Australian rock legend dates back to their schooldays in rural Victoria in the early 1970s and it was only in 2009 that he finally took the decision to end the association and strike out on his own.
Sketches From The Book Of The Dead is the multi-instrumentalist’s first release under his own name since leaving the Bad Seeds and, while he has undertaken other solo projects in the past, this record is the work of an artist keen to lay down a marker as a singer-songwriter of note. Harvey’s moonlighting from his day job with Cave was largely restricted to Antipodean film soundtracks and collaboration work with PJ Harvey and Anita Lane, as well as albums of cover versions, but Sketches… is all his own original compositions, as if he finally feels liberated from the creative shackles of the chief Seed’s overwhelming influence.
That’s not to underestimate the vital contribution Harvey made to The Birthday Party and Bad Seeds’ success. While Cave provided the drama and star quality, his sidekick’s ability to master almost any instrument gave their songs vital texture and atmosphere. This comprehensive command of musical mood continues to shine through on Sketches…, with Harvey playing almost all the instruments himself. The record retains many of the elements that make the Seeds so distinctive, recalling in particular mid to late period albums like The Boatman Calls and No More Shall We Part.
The prevailing tone is slow and sombre, with maudlin guitar twanging, haunting violin and stately piano to the fore throughout. Widescreen and cinematic, Harvey’s songs effectively evoke the vast, stark landscapes of his native country, and his gruff baritone suits the downbeat material down to the ground. Be warned – the subject matter isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. This album is clearly something of a cathartic experience for Harvey and by finally putting his songwriting centre stage he also takes the opportunity to tell some deeply personal stories close to his heart.
Opener October Boy reflects on the life of recently deceased former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S Howard, while second track The Ballad Of Jay Givens is the tale of his father’s best friend who took his own life for reasons never fully explained. A Place Called Passion imagines the experiences of Harvey’s two grandfathers who fought in the World War I trenches; That’s All Paul sees him angry and bitter about a fatal car crash. Proceedings close with the raucous, ragged rock of Famous Last Words, with Harvey proclaiming portentously that “you can be a king or a street sweeper; everybody dances with the grim reaper”. Bleak stuff indeed, and after 40 minutes of relentless misery many will feel in need of some respite from Harvey’s surfeit of soul bearing.
Perhaps the biggest drawback Sketches… has is that it sounds like a Nick Cave record but without the inimitable presence of the man himself. Harvey’s a decent singer, but he lacks Cave’s gravitas. He’s also capable of some affecting, powerful lyrics, but once again, he doesn’t quite match up to his old pal when it comes to lightening the doom and despair with the occasional witty couplet or literate flourish.
What we’re left with is a sincere, patiently crafted musical statement that is high on atmosphere but rather hard work. Fans of the bands he’s graced over the years will find much to enjoy here, but the shadow of Cave still looms large over Harvey’s career even after the two men have gone their separate ways.