Album Review: Ed Harcourt – Furnaces

By on Thursday, 18th August 2016 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by Steve Gullick

Ed Harcourt Furnaces album coverPop songwriter Ed Harcourt‘s new album ‘Furnaces’ packs exactly the kind of heat and intense pressure that its title might suggest. Its songs are profoundly critical of Western society and of human nature as a whole, but also profoundly personal and self-reflective. On his official Web site. Harcourt paraphrases a famous quote from John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17, “No man is an island unto himself” as a central theme of the new album before giving further insight into his creative process. “This record is from the heart of a father, brother and human. The rage that I have for these intense times has kept me burning, kept me writing; I suppose one is compelled by how the outside world reflects one’s own shortcomings; these are the mirrors that we hold up to ourselves, in the search for some kind of truth.”

For help with the sonic realisation of his weighty subject matter, Harcourt has turned to veteran producer Flood, whose production credits include work with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey and Foals. Considering the tone of those previous collaborations, the overwhelmingly dark and brooding air Flood lends to Harcourt’s ‘Furnaces’ should come as no great surprise. The stark electronic intro to moody ballad ‘The World is on Fire’ pivots on the lines “I think I’m spinning out of my heart / it’s such a fitting way to die”, expanding from that point into anxious percussion and dramatic harmonies. Harcourt’s lyrics quickly take an apocalyptic turn in the song’s haunting chorus: “and as the world is on fire / I hear songs with no words / while in the grand scheme of things / it’s just the dark in the universe”.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/nrcrke_aAtM[/youtube]

Title track ‘Furnaces’ cuts right to the quick of corporate greed and excess, opening with the caustic observation, “no matter how much coal you shovel in the mouth of your child / these furnaces still want more”. The song’s dramatic refrain “this is junkyard love on a scrap heap of lust / keep the furnace burning lest we turn into rust” is sharply effective in the album version featured in the video above, but equally scathing in the acoustic performance just below.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/loIK9wk0MB0[/youtube]

The album’s overriding gloom and doom is broken up with a dose of cynical humour in ‘Occupational Hazard’, where the bass groove and deep vocals come across more like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch who stole Christmas than Harcourt probably intended. He comes back to taking himself seriously in ‘Nothing But a Bad Trip’, which schizophrenically shifts from deep, foreboding rhythms to warmer, piano-laced sounds and back again to heavy, distorted guitars and guttural vocals. Its lyrical reference to John Donne, “I knew without doubt that every man can sometimes be an island”, seethes with prior arrogance and present regret, especially in the context of the chorus lines “nothing like a bad trip to bring you down / the only bird in a fishbowl town”.

Harcourt himself describes ‘Dionysus’ as a musing on the dual nature of man and the “teetering see-saw of [his] morals”. The song’s stately piano intro quickly becomes a militant march, then veers off into a visceral morass of guitars before softening again under the hopeless plea “I know you want to help me, but I’m beyond salvation / tearing through your beauty, too lost for damnation”.

‘Last of Your Kind’ is a bit lighter and brighter than the other tracks on the album, but even here Harcourt takes a rather dire view of what might normally be seen as a positive situation. The lyrical chorus melody “there’s nothing more to do . . . there’s nothing more to say . . . there’s no one else like you / you’re the last of your kind” provides a welcome glimmer of hope among the ruins depicted in the surrounding songs. The bridge lyric “if we’re standing on the edge of existence / I don’t want this moment to end” is one of the most poignant moments on the album.

‘Furnaces’ is the kind of intellectually deep and emotionally ponderous album that won’t likely find its way onto anyone’s Sunday morning playlist, but its sharp perspective and insight are undeniable. Harcourt and Flood have joined forces to create an epic soundscape illustrating the impotent furore and frustration that so many people, including apparently Harcourt himself, seem to feel in our current trying times.

7.5/10

Ed Harcourt’s seventh studio album ‘Furnaces’ is due for release this Friday, the 19th of August, via Polydor Records / Caroline International. Harcourt will perform a special solo show to celebrate the album release at London’s Rough Trade East next Monday, the 22nd of August, and another one-off show at London’s Village Underground on the 21st of September.

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