Retro-Review: Strangers

 

I was going to leave this one till last in this series of reviews of albums from 2000 – 2006 but I re-listened to it recently with my fiancé as I am introducing her to Ed Harcourt. Ed’s been a BIG musical influence on me since I first heard his first album Here Be Monsters back in the early 2000s. Not only that but he responded to my first and only fan letter I’ve ever written and has remembered me the handful of times I’ve met him in person after gigs. He’s a lovely chap and has been encouraging of a young musician he barely knows for no reason other than it’s a nice thing to do. I am, therefore, biased and predisposed to extoll his virtues at any opportunity. His music means a lot to me and so does my partner so I’m keen to introduce her to some of my favourite artists she doesn’t know, as music is a common passion between us and we have similar tastes. Unfortunately, I have always struggled with Strangers. And yet it is probably Ed Harcourt’s best album.

As these reviews are turning out to be biographical in nature, Strangers came out at an odd time. September 2004 I was 20 years old, had been living in my own place for nearly two years and was dating my first serious girlfriend. It was also six months before my Dad died. I had been anticipating its release for a while thanks to the postcard Ed sent me telling me he was in Sweden recording it and was such a big fan of his first two records that a third was a must-have. It was disappointing then that when I did buy it on the day of release and put it on as soon as I got home I didn’t really enjoy it. Strangers is a completely different animal from Harcourt’s previous albums and the sound of the album is totally different. Jari Haapalainen’s production is sparse and glacial, everything is drenched in thick, dark reverb giving the record a distant and melancholy sound, a sound that marries well with the steely grey of the album artwork. It is also more cohesive than his previous albums. While the style, instrumentation and tempo of the tracks vary wildly, the production is so uniform they all sound similar. What would normally be considered a plus for an album I grumpily saw as a minus. I didn’t want the album to sound like a cohesive whole, I wanted the Beatles-esque, madcap variety of Here Be Monsters and From Every Sphere, with its emotional peaks and troughs. Instead I got a more mature, slightly bleak album that is much richer in imagery but with more oblique subject matter. In short, I didn’t get it.

Two years later, Ed’s fourth and final album with Heavenly Recordings The Beautiful Lie, came out and was much more like what I expected from Harcourt to the point that I utterly dismissed Strangers as an anomaly and considered TBL the correct part of the continuity after From Every Sphere. It is only years later I reconsidered this as a Bad Take. Strangers’ delights are many but only observed in its entirety. As stated, the songs on the album are less individual, the production means tracks don’t stand out as much despite being ‘louder’ or ‘happier’ or ‘more aggressive’. They carry a slightly cold uniformity that blends them into one but creates a definitive sound for the album that no one else can approximate. It is an inimitable album in the truest sense of that word: even if you wanted to, you could not imitate it. As the production resists interpretation other than as a whole it demands you value the tracks in another way, which means actually listening to the songs and making up your own mind. And this is why it is perhaps Harcourt’s best album. His songs on Strangers are probably the best he has written to date. Unfailingly melodic, lyrically complex and deeply varied the songs on the album are almost all masterpieces. Re-listening again recently I was shocked at how well created and distinct each track is and how the production doesn’t overstate the mood or topic of the song. This made me want all albums to be made in the same way. In a time when production is what sells a song I found myself longing for a time when the production gets out of the way and lets the actual music do the talking. It’s a testament to how alien that is though, that it took me over a decade to decode this. Ed is one of the greatest underrated songwriters of our times and Strangers is proof positive of his abilities.

The personnel on the album is small, basically amounting to Jari and Ed playing all the instruments with occasional contributions from friends like Hadrian Garrard on Trumpet or Ed’s wife Gita on Violin. The instrumentation is fantastic however, the title track being an exemplar. A tight and close Wurli keyboard is front and centre with no reverb while the electric guitar has 50s surf levels of reverb on it, combine that with the kazoo solo towards the end and you have a really unique sound set. Synths, strings, acoustic 12 string guitars, megaphones, clavinets, tubular bells and more fill the album but all covered in that a cool, dark, spacious reverb. It’s amazing how crammed with inventive musicality a record can be while simultaneously being so stark. My brother was similarly dismissive of the album as I was on release, stating it was Harcourt’s ‘Jeff Buckley Album’. Personally, I don’t hear the similarity other than that both albums are filled with melodic and interesting songs that are well sung but I imagine it has something to do with that starkness.

Looking back on Strangers now is a strange experience. Unlike Ed’s other albums I have barely listened to Strangers over the years which means when I return to it now it conjures up some genuinely complex and rather painful memories and associated emotions. This One’s For You is particularly emotive due to its theme’s of screwing up relationships and its overall melancholy sound. I used to cover it at gigs but the intervening 15 years or so has distanced it from more recent life events meaning it only ever refers to that time in my life. In short, Strangers is an album by a musician and songwriter at the height of his powers recording with a producer that had a definite sound they wanted for an album, all of which culminates in one of the most mature and intelligent pieces of music made this millennium. It really is remarkable, but it took me the better part of two decades to recognise that fact. To me though, Strangers is inextricably linked to my first relationships, living alone for the first time and the period leading up to my father passing away. It’s a loaded album for me and the fact its ‘Sound’ is so inextricably linked to its content means Strangers will always be a difficult album to listen to. Ed Harcourt is a national treasure few have heard of and should be better appreciated by the world at large and Strangers is, to my mind, one of – if not his actual – best album to date. Not only that, Ed’s a bloody nice bloke and you should support him even if you don’t like his music because he and his music have helped me at some pretty rough junctures in my life. Thanks, Ed.

Standout tracks would be The Storm is Coming which is the sort of song Coldplay wish they could write, This One’s For You which is just achingly beautiful and Loneliness which should have been a bigger single but, again, I feel the production worked against it. My personal favourite song is the epic Kids which feels like it was a lost track from Bowie’s Heroes era but better (not a Bowie fan myself). The album operates better as whole however. The tracks bounce off one another but are inside the same whole like balls in a tombola. Like the other albums I’ve been reviewing, it’s worth your time to just take an hour and sit down and listen to it from start to finish. I’d love to know what you make of it. Especially if you were not aware of Ed Harcourt previously.