Love is a burning thing. Or the drug. Or all you need, depending on who you listen to. Any which way, it has been an artist’s muse, since art began. So on this, his sixth solo album, Mick Harvey is a songwriter charting extremely familiar territory.
So familiar in fact that at the heart of Four (Acts of Love) are versions of other artists’ work, including The Saints, Van Morrison and Roy Orbison. One track is by long time collaborator PJ Harvey. He describes Four as a song cycle, and it’s broken into three acts, somewhat contradictory to the title, all of which deal with the lofty and abstract concept of love, and loss and everything in between.
Harvey is better known for performing with fellow Antipodean Nick Cave as a Bad Seed and in The Birthday Party, so it will come as no surprise to anyone unfamiliar to his solo work that Four… is a lushly produced album, with impressive orchestral arrangements and both a dark and lighter side.
The first act of the album is named after a track by Bahamian folk artist Exuma, Summertime In New York. Harvey’s is a faithful cover, turning a Caribbean inspired folk song into a Tom Waits style bluesy shuffle. It captures the claustrophobic heat of the big apple in August perfectly, even if it’s not clear exactly what it tells us about love.
Things don’t get a whole lot more straightforward with the PJ Harvey-penned Glorious. It is underpinned by a classic Polly Jean guitar riff, but Mick’s vocals about horses not eating, birds not singing and princesses who “took everything” are a little abstract to say the least. Yet it has a haunting air and eerie string section which will appeal to fans of both Harveys alike.
Harvey excels in metaphor and imagery throughout his lyrics and the next act of Four… is no more simple a creature. Act 2 The Story Of Love, named after The Saints song, is loosely about the mystery of falling in love but is no less obtuse than the songs before it. That cover is less buzzsaw guitar than the original, more folk than punk, but Harvey attempts a snarl and develops the track way beyond the original version.
God Made The Hammer could be a metaphor for the physical reaction to falling for someone: “Drums in my ears, shines in her eyes”, or something entirely different, but its lush arrangement takes your ear away from the lyrics and envelops you in Harvey’s musicianship. Likewise, I Wish That I Were A Stone is probably a yearning for not having to deal with the complexity of emotion but, ultimately, its suspended piano and almost catchy chorus is testament in itself.
The final act of Four… is a more sombre collection of three songs called Wild Hearts Run Out On Time, after the Roy Orbison song about Marilyn Monroe. Harvey’s cover is moving – he and his piano tell the story of the power of an individual to destroy themselves with emotion. The album ends with Praise The Earth, a piano driven song which finds Harvey in reflective mood “our dreams and all that we’ve done/into the unknown”.
Four… is at its heart a concept album about a very common notion – the power and mystery of love. Mick Harvey has built the album around other people’s songs, a wise move considering the wealth of experience and variety he can and does draw on. Harvey’s talent on Four… is to mix impressive arrangements with obtuse lyrics yet still add something to the debate on a well worn topic.