Caught Red Right Handed
Guitarist and vocalist Mick Harvey’s departure from The Bad Seeds was a spicy one indeed, though the exact degree of spiciness is still disputed by Harvey and his longtime friend/collaborator Nick Cave. When Mick bailed back in ‘09, Cave described his absence as “this lovely…guitar-shaped hole in the music that was just beautiful,” which would work to guide the writing and composition of the groups succeeding album Push The Sky Away. “Because,” added Cave, “the guitar just gobbles everything up.”
This is funny for a litany of reasons. Not the least of which is Nick Cave’s ludicrous notion that any musical instrument could ever come close to eclipsing his gargantuan stage presence, booming tenor or fearsome hairline, but also because Harvey told Meltingpod a rather different tale in March of 2010. He insisted that there were “No musical differences. In the attitude about how we should be playing the music were differences,” and that “A lot of the versions of songs that the band were playing were shortcut, simplified versions of favorite songs of ours that were just an easy way to play them live. And they weren’t testing or making the band work hard to make great pieces of music anymore.” Yikes.
Harvey’s done much to combat this perceived atmosphere of complacency on his latest record, Delirium Tremens. The 2016 release is not only Harvey’s third solo outing since he left The Bad Seeds in the dust of the Australian outback, but also his third outing entirely dedicated to reinterpreting the works of French icon Serge Gainsbourg. While many a cover album has come off as a low-effort cash grab, Harvey’s multi-act project is clearly a labor of love, complete with grand arrangements in place of Gainsbourg’s distinctly Romantic minimalism, as well as one-for-one French-English translations that approximate the song’s original words while also conforming to the tunes’ prescribed vocal rhythms. No easy task.
“Deadly Tedium” (Formerly “Ce Mortel Ennui”) touts the dark, oily slickness that defined The Bad Seeds early work. Harvey adds marimbas and while preserving the now-retro organ sounds, tops it all with swingin’ splash symbols tickled with brushes. Meanwhile, “Coffee Colour” oscillates between something resembling Paul Simon’s Graceland – with cheery electric piano, accordion and myriad percussion sounds that vaguely ape afropop – and the sinister leanings of The Birthday Party. Even the mock western shuffle “The Convict Song” would fit right in with the most jangling tracks of Henry’s Dream. Harvey’s voice is much like that of Alex Vega of Suicide – the tonality is notably lacking, sounding especially stretched when reaching for Serge’s effortless high notes. But, like Cave, he more than gets by on his menacing, foreboding sing-talking when vocal melodies elude him. “SS C’est Bon” best utilizes his singing’s leaden heaviness. The growling, gravelly texture of it all unabashedly springs from Cave and Harvey’s mutual reverence of melancholic singer/songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. This shared admiration helped Nick and Mick to shape the sound and vision of Goth rock, and grants the track an evil, sinister stomp combined with showtunes-esque gusto and group vocals. It almost sounds like he collaborated with Danny Elfman.
Admittedly, while most of the tracks stand up on their own, a few of Harvey’s reimaginings fall flat, most notably “I Envisage,” a bass guitar led post-pink trudge in the vein of Public Image Ltd or Bauhaus. Sure, it’s got some spooky feedback and eerie echoes, but it still feels empty and unfinished. Moments like these are brief and easy to look past. Harvey’s solo album’s reaffirm that the guitarist is a masterful arranger and lyricist, who works well within (perhaps even better than without) a definable set of restraints. Sadly, Harvey’s solo work will forever be saddled with the unfair comparison to his records with The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds, both of which were undeniably Cave-dominated affairs. Cave and Harvey’s songwriting styles evolved parallel to one another as they matured, and the front man’s ghost certainly lingers. But without the staggering, unhinged madman yelling over it all, Delirium Tremens feels much more…dignified, maybe? Focused? Perhaps what Cave would call “congested” as he dubs Abattoir Blues in his interview WFUV Radio, but certainly never predictable.