Ed Harcourt’s granny must have had one heck of a record collection. As the story goes, the oddball Britpopper with the shaggy ‘do and the creepy peepers disappeared into his grandmother’s English-countryside cottage for three long years; when he resurfaced recently, the 20-something had more than 300 songs to show for his seclusion. Just what happened in there no one really knows. His lyrics sure don’t offer many clues: Songs that might be about isolation and heartache and self-loathing eventually spiral down fantastical, comical rabbit holes. However, the hodgepodge of influences heard on his sophomore full-length, From Every Sphere, suggest that, at the very least, someone was DJing up an eclectic storm: U2 and the Beastie Boys, Wilco and Ben Folds, Chet Baker and Bruce Springsteen. Coldplay, Momus, and Tom Waits, too.
Curiously enough, the strongest vibe Harcourt sends out is of circa-’73 Elton Johnwho, come to think of it, should stop buddying around with prolific sham Ryan Adams and snuggle up to a prolific real deal. With its abundance of hallucinatory, deeply personal musings bundled in complex pop packages, Harcourt’s beautifully bizarre new disc is reminiscent of Goodbye Yellow Brick Roadbut, y’know, in a good way. That piano-driven classic, by turns grandiose and goofy, ran the oddball gamut with styleand then some. You could sing all the wordseven though most of them came out of your mouth like so much gibberish. Harcourt taps that same engaging vein for Sphere, a melody-intensive experience that’s sure to grace myriad Top 10 lists at year’s end. He’s cocky, he’s shifty, and he’s smart as hell. And if the big ol’ softie doesn’t provide glossies of his big ol’ heart, he will give quick glimpses of it through the looking glass.
Some critics have compared Harcourt to Badly Drawn Boy (aka Damon Gough), but they’re not quite right. Although Gough is equally promiscuous in his genre-hopping (and a fiendishly talented bloke in his own right), he’s more of a ham than a bummed-out heartbreaker. Harcourt does join Gough in the wonder-boy category, however, writing all but one of Sphere’s 13 songs and playing a ridiculous number of instruments, including piano, guitar, pump organ, glockenspiel, drums, bass, harmonica, and something called the “fun machine.” (And if you’re looking for a really wonky connection between the two: Gough’s backing band used to be Doves, who are led by Jimi Goodwin, who shows up here to play tambourine and perform some of his band’s quirk-and-lush magic.)
“Well I’ve travelled around the earth/And still I wonder if I’m the first/Human being who questions his worth,” Harcourt swoons on opening cut “Bittersweetheart,” a Folds-y piano ballad that wobbles weak-kneed on a lovely melodyand is about as straightforward-honest as he’s going to get. The out-of-love song also incorporates a Todd Rundgren-esque guitar solo and a horn solo from the Burt Bacharach box set, the first two clues that this artist doesn’t always play in the present.
Things quickly get weirder and more wonderful: “Pitchfork in my foot/I tried the best I could/ Dragging all this wood/With a rusty fishhook,” sings Harcourt on the trippy “All of Your Days Will Be Blessed,” which starts as music for a calliope slowing down, speeding up, then slowing down (Harcourt toys with time-keeping throughout Sphere), and then shakes off its something-wicked fog and turns into boot-stompin’ rock infused with Beach Boys harmonizing. And “Ghost Writer,” with its a techhead beat and wah-wah guitar line, is a head-bob lark that ponders creepy-crawlies, ripe tomatoes, andindirectly, mind youwhat Fiona Apple would sound like if she were a dude.
If Harcourt hadn’t written “The Birds Will Sing for Us” and “Watching the Sun Come Up,” then sooner or later, Jeff Tweedy certainly would have. They’re the kind of slightly sinister dusty shuffles that Wilco does best, and their y’alternative aftertaste cleverly betrays Harcourt’s British nativity. So does “Sister Reneé,” which is half Nebraska (dig that Boss-y harmonica), half Boston Pops (dig those swelling strings), and, what the hell, half One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (dig the gone-crazy giveaway lyric: “Watch myself fade on the bed that was made/Not by Nurse Ratchet but by you yeah by you”).
Harcourt brings things back home with “Undertaker Strut,” which borrows Bono’s falsetto and the opening riff from Led Zep’s “Misty Mountain Hop” to create the coolest song about a serial killer since “Mack the Knife.” And for all you Brit-pop kids who like to cry and make out at the same time, Harcourt enters the Coldplay, Doves, Radiohead et al. sweepstakes with “Bleed a River Deep,” a so-slow plaintive piece of sorrow wrapped in the gauze of angelic ahhh-ing and mournful trumpet. Pretty powerful stuffeven though our man does rhyme “pockets” and “rockets.”
Harcourt will be soundtracking flicks soon enough, I imagineafter all, he’s not afraid to get all gushy on you, as he does on “Fireflies Take Flight” (“Oh beware of bleeding lung/And bugs that eat their young”), a slow-build weeper about the singer’s inability to find peace in the most peaceful of places. But for the moment, the only vision he’s concerned with is his own: You can hear a rocking chair creak before several songs, and you gotta wonder if that sound effect has something to do with From Every Sphere’s liner-note dedication “to the loving memory of my grandmother.” Sweet kid, that Eddie. And just think: He has her to thank for about 280 more songs, a prolonged eulogy I’m actually looking forward to sitting through. CP