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Sketches From the Book of the Dead
Format: CD / LP / Digital
Release Date: May 3, 2011
By Dave Clifford October 3, 2011

Mick Harvey has always been a consummate sideman. A multi-instrumentalist with particular penchant for serving others’ muses as if they were his own, he’s shadowed legendary songwriters and performers like Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Simon Bonney (Crime & The City Solution), Roland S. Howard, and Anita Lane. When he finally ventured into producing his own solo efforts in the 1990s, he opted to translate and reinterpret the songs of Serge Gainsbourg for his first two albums rather than creating songs of his own. His third and fourth albums – One Man’s Treasure (Mute, 2005) and Two of Diamonds (Mute, 2007) – consisted mostly of cover songs, with only two originals on each. In all, this track record might indicate either a lack of confidence or disinterest in taking the role of songwriter and instead remaining a musical custodian.

With Sketches From the Book of the Dead, Harvey has stepped out of the shadows to prove that he is an able songwriter in his own right, penning all of the album’s 11 songs. As you’d expect, the songs are as fittingly dark and richly mellifluous as we’ve come to expect of his myriad collaborations. The only shortcoming, however – and also a big one – is that while all of his solo albums have embodied that workmanlike character for which he’s known, there’s little dramatic intensity nor much sense of vulnerability with which we can connect in Harvey’s solo work. In all of his collaborations, he’s worked with extremely charismatic vocalists who transform the typically placid music with their juxtaposed vocal histrionics. If we were to assume that he’s deliberately intending to avoid the grandstanding of his other musical partners, the only unfortunate conclusion is that he’s not an able conveyor of emotion.

This album began loosely as a meditation on death and the various things that we all leave behind in our passing – artifacts, unfinished conversations, et cetera. Yet, sadly, it doesn’t seem to convey any sense of emotional investment at all. I’m not looking for any sort of emotive posturing or trite drama, but the fact that his voice never alternates from a sedate, sing-song tone tends to make the album as a whole seem lacking in any sort of passion. And, this is truly unfortunate given that Sketches is, in fact, such a deeply personal work for him, ruminating on previous losses of friends and family that culminated with the death of his friend and longtime bandmate, Roland S. Howard, in 2009. There are moments of lyrical profundity – “there was nothing left to see there”, he sings, “that gave me any sense/ Of what once was, so I took your things/ Back to the present tense” (“Two Paintings”) – and deeply personal sentiments. So, it’s strange that Harvey’s delivery of the songs sounds so detached. Leonard Cohen’s notoriously dry vocal delivery has always succeeded due to his mastery of phrasing and giving the proper inflection to his words that conveys their emotional significance to the singer. While Harvey perfectly adorns his strong lyrics with delicate instrumentation, he somehow lacks the vocal cadence that makes Cohen’s songs so striking.

Vocals aside, it’s a work as musically rich as we’ve come to expect from Harvey. Mostly acoustic based, with tasteful flourishes of organ, violin, accordion, and piano, the songs flow throughout with a soothing dignity. Opener “October Boy” pays homage to Lee Hazlewood’s “Friday’s Child” with a similar 6/8 waltz rhythm and vocals declaring the attributes of the song’s protagonist (which, one would assume, is Rowland Howard). Harvey intones, “If I write you a song in my book of the dead / Should I make it carefree or make it sad? / If I write you a song in that book of the dead / Will it matter at all what’s left unsaid?” Elsewhere, “Rhymeless” is a somber lament led by a delicate piano line as Harvey sings, “All the songs that you never sang to your little ones / Like ghosts at the end of their beds.” Other tracks venture through beautiful melodies, hooks and lyrics that nicely cover similar subject matter with a fresh storytelling perspective on each that never comes across as contrived or cloying. “How Would I Leave You?” addresses the difficult question: if I could choose the season and setting of my passing, how would I want it to be? Harvey sings of the idyllic sensations of each season in a manner that’s essentially a wish for those he’d leave behind to perceive the beauty around them in the inevitable tragedy of death. In the sadness of our grief, the dying person’s wish is for our loved ones to appreciate the beauty of all that remains in the living.

It’s a mature, intelligent work from a major talent, but also unfortunately indicative that his talents are best served in support of more charismatic vocalists.

Visit: Mick Harvey | Mute
Purchase: Insound | eMusic