Back Into the Woods
Reviewed by Michele Zipkin
The sixth studio album by the very accomplished Ed Harcourt, Back Into the Woods, is a collection of very honest songs that pull back a curtain onto a personal landscape of his thoughts and experiences. He is a skilled pianist and songwriter, truly an artist. His previous records, the first of which has earned him a Mercury award, have lead him to share a bill with artists like Wilco, Norah Jones, Sondre Lerche, and Feist.
Drawing influence from the likes of Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley and Nick Cave, Harcourt’s latest release, apparently recorded in one fell swoop over the course of six hours, showcases charmingly sparse instrumentation in contrast to some of his previous work. Vocals paired with piano or guitar are the main components of this group of songs, but that’s not to say that a couple other instruments don’t peek through. Beautiful single-line violin makes its voice heard in “Hey Little Bruiser”, the chords of which paint very beautiful colors with their slight tonal ambiguity and simple arpeggiation.
A bit more complex piano work can be heard in “Wandering Eye”, quite a revelatory song in which Harcourt just reveals everything that’s going on in his head (or in the head of the character of the song), admitting his adversity in having a wandering eye and resorting to violence. An unexpected and slightly haunting chorus (perhaps of Harcourt’s multi-tracked voice) comes into play after a couple verses, pleasantly surprising since there has been no hint of a background vocal so far. But surprises in music are warmly welcomed. The piano evokes a bit of Rufus Wainwright’s steeze with the keys.
“Murmur in My Heart” slows it down to a downtrodden pace with very poetic, albeit tragic lyrics like “…she is the mist that (steals) the forests, she is the beartrap around your leg, and when she pulls you from the wreckage, just pretend that you are dead”. Stream-like and achingly forlorn guitar-playing supports the vocal melody. “Brothers and Sisters” features some more extravagant vocals and piano; the reverb on Harcourt’s voice makes it sound as if he were playing in a vast church hall. It’s reminiscent perhaps of one of the Beatles’ more simple and piano-driven tunes, and might even stand to benefit from some percussion or bass.
The title track is perhaps the most loveable of the nine songs that compose Back Into the Woods. Its beautiful and almost jazzy main melody is quite possibly the most melodically straightforward so far. It serves as the vehicle through which Harcourt recounts a tragic tale about the unforgiving elements of mother nature, and maybe the unforgiving elements of man.
This oeuvre ends up on a fairly somber note with “The Man that Time Forgot”, a tune about the desire for renewal or redemption, but also severe guilt from past wrongdoings. Here Harcourt sings down in the eerily low register of his voice, exposing his Tom Waits tendencies.
Back Into the Woods proves intimate and raw, personal, passionate, and very real. Harcourt sings of struggles and longings that most everyone encounters. While these songs sadly may not reach the top of the charts, they provide invaluable commentary on what it means to be human.