Ed Harcourt is more than just a songwriter, he’s a performer. Or better yet, a showman. Between sips of red wine, he’ll serenade you with varied versions of his beloved originals, as well as an inspired cover or two. And when you least expect it, the remarkably stylish, handsome singer will do his best impersonation of Chris Martin and Mike Skinner or play a 30-second cover of the Muppet Show theme. Few songwriters can boast this level of fun and theatricality, not to mention a penchant for straying from set lists. The thing is, though, this side of the British singer-songwriter may not be as apparent on his records. Watching a performance and listening to an album are two very different experiences. But it’s safe to say that even those who haven’t witnessed a Harcourt show firsthand will find Strangers, Ed’s third full-length, to be a mesmerizing experience.
With each new album, Harcourt pushes himself just a little bit further. On Here Be Monsters, he introduced himself to the world with a combination of Jeff Buckley’s grace and Tom Waits’ grit. From Every Sphere was a much more produced affair, rocketing Harcourt’s tunes into a whole new stratosphere of sonic heights. And on Strangers, his third album, his songs have reached a happy medium, neither under- or over-produced, with each individual tune being given the appropriate foundation to speak for themselves, without being obstructed by studio trickery.
Opening with a noisy guitar squeal that sounds as if it were pulled straight from a Bauhaus record, Strangers drops the listener right into the eye of “The Storm is Coming,” one of Harcourt’s more fiery numbers, akin to previous singles like “All Your Days Will Be Blessed” or “Watching the Sun Come Up.” However, it’s not a single, unfortunately, so we don’t get to witness a video of Harcourt playing piano in the middle of a tornado. “Born in the `70s” is a single, though, and a peppy one at that, as Harcourt offers simple but charming verse about his origins: “My parents named me Ed/I was a red-faced child.” “This One’s For You,” is a near-country ballad that stands as one of the only tracks to share any similarities to a prior comparison, Badly Drawn Boy.
While the first three songs pack a splendid opening punch, things only get better from there. The title track contains a bouncy Rhodes melody and some of Harcourt’s more stylish lyricism: “Deliciously/I eat up all your words.” The next track, “Let Love Not Weigh You Down” returns to a more boisterous and lushly produced tracks, as strings dance in the background, beneath Harcourt’s driving piano melody. But things quiet down significantly in the lone harmonium drone of “Something to Live For” and the haunting acoustic textures of “The Trapdoor.” And if you were afraid that all the single-worthy material had been spent on the first side, “Loneliness” will put that fear to rest, as it ranks among Harcourt’s catchiest material, with its irresistible chorus of “Loneliness/Loneliness/What would I do without you?”
Having seen Harcourt a few times in the past, I can imagine just how stellar these tracks would be in a live setting and, personally, can’t wait to hear them as such. Not everyone has had that luxury, however, and to those types, I must encourage you to see him perform as soon as he comes to a town nearby. In the meantime, let Strangers work its charms on you at home. And pour yourself a glass of Cabernet while you’re at it, I’m sure he’d appreciate that.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.