FOUR (ACTS OF LOVE) - Mick Harvey (Mute)
To start with the obvious, when a musician whose talent has appeared to grow over time such as Mick Harvey writes an album about love, giving it a listen is mandatory. Mick comes to us from a big, busy, eventful life stuffed with everything from near-misses and frustration to giddy success and associations the world can only gape at.
The cover depicts a beautifully chaotic night sky, the rear cover a scorching, flaming sky - we of course rarely look up, or around us to see the grand, glittering dance of burning chaos.
If we make the lazy assumption that this album is autobiographical, that would mean that the fourth act of love (there are only three acts listed) would be that between Mick and his partner.
It may, of course, be more prosaic, the love he feels for music, the love he gives to us, the love we give to him.
Listening to this rather wonderful, grower of an album, one realises that we don't really need to know. Rather like a relationship which crashes and burns over three old-fashioned eps, Four Acts of Love also resembles a medieval miracle play ... but it's not what you think, nor where you expect things to end up. Mick has always arranged songs so that the music is at one with the lyrics, which are, after all, the point of a song. Typically, Mick has arranged the handful of cover versions so well that he may as well have written them himself.
We are taken up, first, with Mick's voice, the thrum of life, his maturity and reflective soul ... any other vocalist with a voice like Mick's would push it in your face, and Mick knows we'd become over familiar with that technique. Like his work on his previous album, and his tracks on the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project cds, Mick only sparingly releases that voice - the rest is delicate, powerful self-control.
Praise the Earth and Glorious start us off with lovely, moving pieces of stories, seamless rhythms and textures rolling into each other like water over smooth stones. Most musicians can't do beauty, and certainly even fewer can do beauty and intelligence (and I emphatically include the endless parade of noodling 'chill out' musos in there, wasting everybody's time). By severe contrast, Mick Harvey handles himself with the panache and confidence of a big name drawcard which, as far as I am concerned, he is.
Midnight on the Ramparts, with its background of late night noir on an analogue tv comes to the fore, conjuring up clever images of place and time; Summertime in New York follows and, if you're unfamiliar with the source of this one, check out Exuma's cd Snake - if you can find it. People have been talking about this song, which plucks you from the comfy, well-worn slump in your armchair into a vivid, early De Niro flick, where New York was New York, urgent, filled with vice, animal life and humanity, and not the nice place it is now.
By the end of the first Act we know we are being touched by something remarkable simple and profound, and we are hugely affected. Mick's deftness as an arranger has resulted in songs which, on first listen, we feel we have heard them - and loved them - sometime in the last few years.
God Made the Hammer and I Wish That I Were Stone open the second act and are superb. We could interpret the first, as if Mick has rediscovered the spirituality and sense behind christianity (with a kind of Flannery O'Connor musculature) and come full circle to acceptance via forgiveness. But, again, perhaps not. I think it's undeniable that to some extent Mick's looking back on himself, possibly with some regrets, but at the same time accepts an inevitability of things, not fate, nor in'shallah neither.
I'm not going to continue song by song. Four Acts of Love is, quite simply, the most romantic album I've yet heard, it's a grower, a real tear jerker. Mick Harvey's measured, powerful expression (music and vocals) create a great humility, a profound intimacy, like a line drawn in a bowl of water.
We look at each other with differing expectations and then, when these things are followed along their natural course, we possess the power to destroy or persevere. I don't know if that's what Mick's angling at, and frankly I don't care, because that's how I've interpreted this.
I'll be listening to this for many years to come, because there will be more to discover. - Robert Brokenmouth
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