Sketches From the Book of the Dead
Crawling out of a Birthday Party/Bad Seeds shadow probably isn’t an easy task. Prior to breaking from Nick Cave in 2009, Mick Harvey released a few covers-heavy albums, and he continued that cautious musical route after this split, once more touring with the Triffids on a series of David McComb tribute shows and recording with PJ Harvey on the critically adored Let England Shake. Steady and reliably strong work, to be sure, but also the type of efforts that offered very little insight as to what a full album’s worth of original Harvey songs might sound like.
Listeners have a much better idea now with Sketches From the Book of the Dead, a mortality-obsessed, mostly sparse album that dwells in darkened corners and deals in dead bodies as much as almost anything Harvey has done with Cave, though far more subtly. Nearly every song is dominated by images and stories of death, and most often these deaths are violent and tragic. “A Place Called Passion” tells of a soldier killed in battle, “the loamy field his unmarked grave;” “Frankie T. and Frankie C.” recounts the tale of a man who couldn’t cope with his wife’s death and presumably commits suicide; “The Ballad of Jay Givens” focuses on how another suicide is remembered and what becomes of one man’s legacy, in this case nothing more than “just a widow’s fading memory.” To his credit, Harvey does color the album with more understated, and less macabre, moments, which prevents Sketches from feeling like an exercise in oppressive hopelessness. He blends a varied Australian geography – Maroondah Highway, Dublin Road, South Yarra flats – with reflections of the past on “Two Paintings” and “The Bells Never Rang,” both of which feature a level of poeticism Harvey’s earlier songs only faintly suggested.
Sketches usually remains controlled and deliberate; though frequently drawn out, it never quite reaches a crawl, an approach that adds a certain degree of gravity to its songs. Harvey’s vocal range is not astonishing – and sometimes his nearly hushed, spoken vocals become a little wearying and repetitive – but as a storyteller Harvey is solid, especially on narrative-based songs like “The Ballad of Jay Givens,” “That’s All, Paul” and “How Would I Leave You?,” which finds its narrator philosophically wondering about which season of the year he’ll die. Harvey extends this tone to the songs’ arrangements, most of which are constructed as ballads that rely on piano, strings and barely-there backing vocals, most notably on “A Place Called Passion” and “The Bells Never Rang.”
Harvey stumbles out of the gates with opening track “October Boy” and again in closing song “Famous Last Words,” both of which are characterized by muddled, aggressive instrumentation that don’t mesh well with the songs between them. Harvey’s lyrics feel too forced and obtuse at times – particularly on the children’s nursery rhyme-referencing “Rhymeless” and “To Each His Own” – but the original material on Sketches From the Book of the Dead easily surpasses his previous albums. Long-time collaborations have a way of typecasting musicians, but if anything, Sketches suggests that Harvey’s reputation might eventually be staked to his solo work as much as for anything he’s previously done with Nick Cave.
by Eric Dennis