I firmly believe that he’s never released a weak album. I remember seeing him supporting Beth Orton seven years ago and wondering what exactly to make of him. There was clearly something to like going on, but his blustering, gruff performance that night didn’t quite convince me enough. It took ‘Strangers’ to make me realise just why I should be so very fond of him. From there, I backtracked quickly through his catalogue, lapping it all up and installing ‘Apple Of My Eye’ in my favourite songs list after only half a dozen plays. There’s something truly special about his careful deployment of bombast, his phenomenally aggressive piano playing and his soaring voice. But he remains tricky to describe. Imagine someone told Tom Waits he had to sound like Paul McCartney – he’d probably be happy to compromise on this sound. Indeed, there are moments on ‘Lustre’ where Ed Harcourt unleashes his inner Waits to great effect. Despite this, the album opens with two pop/rock triumphs.
The title track is almost blue-eyed soul of a fashion not previously attempted by Harcourt and it is euphoric. A masterclass in bringing everything in at exactly the right time, it builds to a point where it seems almost too pleasurable. You’ll struggle to get on to the second track without at least one replay. Not that ‘Haywired’ isn’t worth your time, coming on all ‘Strawberry Fields’ before dropping in wide-panned drums of not inconsiderable heft. There’s a charming, twinkly computerised noise that almost floats above this track at times, quite magically.
‘Church Of No Religion’ follows, proving to be more in keeping with more conventional Harcourt fare, with its skulking rhythm, mid-paced insistent drumbeat and understated vocal performance. Lyrically, it offers a, not entirely unsuspected thanks to the title, critique of religious beliefs and suggests that we should all take responsibility for our own actions, rather than opting to hide behind notions of ‘God’s forgiveness’. Engaging stuff, much like the rough and tumble of ‘Heart Of A Wolf’ which features growly Ed, juxtaposed neatly with full-blooded, syrupy female backing vocals. The chorus opts for bombast, only to then drop you straight back into the rough terrain of the first verse once again for the second. By the time the full on oompah and distorted vocals are rolled out, any sense of perspective is long gone. It is, to be blunt, bloody marvellous.
All-out pop returns for ‘Do As I Say Not As I Do’, which has joyous handclaps and the angelic falsetto refrain of the title to recommend it. “To all the people I’ve offended, you probably needed it,” is a pretty sodding splendid lyric too, while we’re at it. A sensible choice for the first single even if it had little impact upon sales. ‘Killed By The Morning Sun’ comes on like sun-dried country soul, the incessant organ sound low in the mix, ensuring things stay absorbingly laid back. High drama soon returns, however, with ‘Lachrymosity’ (The word itself is made up, but its meaning is not difficult to guess.) Sounding not unlike Rufus Wainwright, this scabrous take on middle class angst, tear-jerking indie and the knuckle-dragging men who hunt city bars in their standard uniform of crisp white shirt and jeans every Friday night is still my favourite track on ‘Lustre’.
‘A Secret Society’ is what I expect an upbeat Ed Harcourt song to sound like which, while no bad thing, makes it rather less beguiling than ‘Lustre’ and ‘Lachrymosity’. ‘When The Lost Don’t Want To Be Found’ has that slow, epic drum sound the conjures the idea of shotgun going off in a cake tin. While musically it’s utterly charming, it’s the quite beautiful vocal that makes this one worth your time. Indeed, there are several points on this album where I was struck by just how good a singer he is, penultimate track ‘So I’ve Been Told’ only serving to further reinforce this. Quite simply, the way in which he sings the word ‘mind’ as if it has double the number of syllables gets me every time.
Album closer ‘Fears Of A Feather’ is an unmistakeable show stopper, replete with an emphatic, swooning chorus. It’s a fittingly upbeat end to an album that serves to underline Ed Harcourt’s desire to begin again, to have a second crack, to take on the world with freshly filled lungs. After a ‘best of’ that was the very antithesis of ‘by popular demand’, things looked a little bleak. Not so. Reenergised, revitalised and, er, really rather good, ‘Lustre’ is one of the best records of the year that nobody’s actually heard.