The image of the singer/songwriter has taken a bit of a knock in recent times, with the likes of James Blunt and Daniel Powter becoming bywords for safe mediocrity, just another commodity to be thrown in your shopping basket come the next trip to the out of town supermarket.
Yet Ed Harcourt really is the anti-Blunt. He’s one of the country’s most prolific songwriters for one thing – this is his sixth album in five years, and his last collection, Elephant’s Graveyard was a download-only compilation of B-sides and demo versions that would put most people’s official releases to shame.
Harcourt’s last ‘official’ release was Strangers, a record inspired by the woman who was to become his wife. That doesn’t mean that The Beautiful Lie is his ‘smug married’ album though – this is the usual incredibly varied and original set of songs, yet shot through with a sense of brooding melancholy that becomes quite seductive over time.
The slightly flamenco-like tone of Whirlwind For D Minor opens the record – it’s upbeat and infectious, with Harcourt’s falsetto grabbing the attention in the verse, before gloriously gliding into a chorus of “will you love me when I’m old? I’m still hoping I can get that far”.
The single Visit From The Dead Dog has a similarly cheerful tone (despite the rather macabre lyrics), but it’s Harcourt’s traditional dark side that makes The Beautiful Lie his best album yet. The Last Cigarette marries the sad tale of a terminally ill smoker to an outrageously pretty acoustic melody while Late Night Partner is a stunningly stark piano ballad with Harcourt in particularly good voice.
Even those highlights though are put in the shade by the absolutely beautiful Rain On The Pretty Ones. Bathed in strings (but not too overpowering), this is possibly one of the best things Harcourt’s written yet. It’s superbly arranged, with the string section balancing beautifully with Harcourt’s piano, and the chorus of backing vocals sounding like a particularly celestial choir of angels. The lyrics too are typically intriguing – “I’m the Christian who cannot forgive, I’m the dreamer who jumps off the bridge”).
Now and again, things go a bit awry though. Scatterbraine is a woozy circus tune that sails perilously close to music hall, while You Only Call Me When You’re Drunk is spoiled by turning into a upbeat romp a minute before the end. It’s a shame, as the opening section is superbly wistful.
Yet even the moments when Harcourt just falls short are infinitely more interesting than most people’s failures. And when he produces something as heart-stoppingly good as Braille, a duet with his wife, you can forgive him any amount of self-indulgent noodling. As the couple sing “I’m not scared of dying…I want to take all the sadness of the world from your shoulders”, it’s impossible not to think of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, so perfectly do their voices work together.
There’s even what could well become Harcourt’s breakthrough single in the uproariously catchy Revolution In The Heart, but then again commercial success is not really what Harcourt’s all about. With every album release he’s heading closer towards the title of national treasure and The Beautiful Lie pushes him ever nearer to that well deserved title.