Sketches From the Book of the Dead
‘Sketches from the Book of the Dead’ is the first full suite of songs Mick Harvey has solely penned – it’s also his finest work to date, writes JP HAMMOND.
On the too-tired question of authenticity in rock music, there can be no doubt – the more conservative the genre, the higher the stakes. In these days of retrograde artistic cannibalism if you make, say, a moody rock record punctuated by stentorian vocals, you better be able to manufacture belief in dissolute, blown youth. Miss the mark at your peril.
The question is thrown into starker relief when you confront that most debased and bracing of all genres: the singer-songwriter. Theoretically the home of the poetic truths of high-school journal keepers (apologies to Lee Ranaldo), too often this most elemental of all musical experiences has been the repository for extraordinary crimes against auditory sensibilities. It is unfortunately all too easy to find relevant examples.
All of which brings us to Mick Harvey’s fourth solo album Sketches from the Book of the Dead. Harvey, best-known for his three-decades of collaboration with Nick Cave - from the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party to the Bad Seeds - is, ostensibly, a singer-songwriter. The songs on Sketches operate within this idiom. These are primal pieces, essentially composed with voice and guitar, ushering softly spoken stories into the world, sparsely, supportively backed by kindred spirits, including JP Shilo and Rosie Westbrook.
Harvey’s first solo albums, Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants, were reverential re-workings of Serge Gainsbourg songs, devoid of the embarrassed kitsch usually deployed when considering Gainsbourg in a contemporary context. These fine albums indicate Harvey’s preferred approach to the genre: serious, studied and classical, fervent in the belief that the ritual power of the song will communicate some ineffable essence of existence.
Sketches arrives as the first full suite of songs Harvey has solely written. It also arrives after the rupture of his creative collaboration with Cave and the very public death of old friends. These are songs concerned with that mightiest of tasks - the weighing up of days, the deplorable depredations of age, the late fragments of life’s possibilities.
It opens with the most public wound, ‘October Boy’, a song written for Harvey’s departed Boys Next Door bandmate Rowland S Howard. An acoustic guitar, almost overloaded in the mix, cleaves the silence, as Harvey speak-sings in heavy, mordant tones. Shilo backs with skittering arcs of welded guitar noise. Westbrook, a fierce force on the double bass, provides the throbbing hypertensile pressure. Lyrics are straight and cool prose, their emotive force gathered from the febrile heat of plain, intimate repetition (eg. “If I write you a song in my Book of the Dead, should I make it carefree or sad?/If I write you a song in that Book of the Dead/will it matter all that’s left unsaid?”).
“As with every song on this very fine album, the craftsman’s treatment – all light piano flourishes and smooth, calm phrasing – works perfectly.”
The album proceeds steadily along this path, incrementally accruing simple, profound force. The song that marks time as the halfway mark, ‘A Place Called Passion’, is one of the finest songs Harvey has written. The tale of a young man killed in war, the song ends with Harvey recalling, “I have a set of books, that three years before were his … and in all … is a dedication … ‘to a bright future’”.
The album concludes with Harvey facing his own end with the same clear-eyed vision applied elsewhere. ‘How Would I Leave You’ answers the question by considering the circadian rhythms of the earth, as the seasonal cycles of birth and death offer the subject of the song consolation rather than bereavement. In lesser hands, it might be an exercise in excess, tawdry sentimentality. As with every song on this very fine album, the craftsman’s treatment – all light piano flourishes and smooth, calm phrasing – works perfectly. ‘Famous Last Words’ ends the album, a kind of splenetic Spike Milligan joke, with Harvey calling on the inevitable (“Ready for the last finale? Great!”) over bitter grunge.
Of course, it’s all too obvious what a contrary view might say: pretentious, meandering, perhaps even boring. If it comes back to those nebulous questions of authenticity and belief, here, for this listener, it all works. These songs, as invested as they are within the seams of history, fit perfectly. It is Harvey’s finest work.