Harcourt’s sixth album features moments of deft, delicate brilliance.
Jaime Gill 2013
Ed Harcourt’s 2001 Mercury Prize nomination has proven a mixed blessing. Yes, it granted his elegant debut, Here Be Monsters, a bigger audience, but it has also cast a dimly anticlimactic light over his subsequent career.
Harcourt has hovered on the edge of mainstream success without quite introducing himself. 2010’s Lustre seemed like a determined attempt to step out of the shadows and say hello: brighter, bigger and bolder. But it disappeared into the same respectable obscurity as its predecessors.
This disappointment may account for the mood of resignation that pervades Back Into the Woods. Thirty seconds into plaintive, piano-led opener The Cusp & The Wane, Harcourt sighs, “There are many voices that are never heard at all,” before reflecting wistfully on William Blake and Mozart’s commercial failure.
Presumably he doesn’t consider himself in quite the same league of genius. But there are enough moments of deft, delicate brilliance here to remind us of what a gifted songwriter he is.
Back Into the Woods sounds like a deliberate retreat from Lustre’s elaborations. Recorded in one night at Abbey Road, with a handful of live instruments and only one or two takes per song, the effect is a little like being in the front row of an exceptionally cosy concert.
Harcourt’s lovely oaken voice rustles and creaks as if he’s singing directly into the listener’s ear, while the piano chords seem to tremble through your skin.
Such naked production means the songwriting has to work very hard indeed. It makes the best songs feel even more compelling and immediate, but makes more ordinary material like the pleasant but meandering troubadour strum of Murmur in My Heart seem even drabber.
Still, at least two songs are breathtaking. On Wandering Eye Harcourt generates as much drama and passion as it seems possible to squeeze out of one man and a piano, while Brothers and Sisters is quite ravishing, carried along by a melody so sweet and simple it feels like a miracle it hasn’t been sung before.
These two songs alone nudge Back Into the Woods from an agreeable diversion into a subtle and seductive delight.