Back Into The Woods
, March 5th, 2013 08:51
Can it really be 13 years since Ed Harcourt released Maplewood, his first collection of demos? Of course it can, none of us are getting any younger, and for a songwriter of Harcourt's ilk that can be no bad thing. Back then he was just some talented young pup with a piano and a Tom Waits fixation - and if the title Back Into The Woods is vaguely self-referential and implying things have somewhat come full circle - then maturity suits Ed.
As a grown-up and established troubadour of some notoriety we should be past all that demoing business, so it's kind of cute to learn Back Into The Woods was recorded, produced, mixed and engineered in six hours at Abbey Road studios in what sounds less like a session than a smash and grab. Plus ça change and all that.
Not that anything is rushed you understand, no quite the opposite, Harcourt is well rehearsed with the songs stripped back to his sweetly soulful voice atop plaintive piano or guitar, with a little violin from his wife Gita Harcourt and cello from Arnulf Lindner on 'Hey Little Bruiser'. Sometimes limitations can bring the best out of people, and while Sean Adams' new label CCCLX can hardly sign off the kind of cheques Ed would have been used to in his early days at EMI, he's a far better artist when his back is against the wall.
So what you have is an album that's very recognisably Ed; the Steve Gullick photography, the tipsy melancholy and romance, the ballads... but without the need for too many frills it sounds complete, nine gorgeous songs that sit beautifully together. This is the sound of a family man rather than a barfly reliving some of the madness from a safe distance and enjoying the moment.
A song like 'Hey Little Bruiser' is undoubtedly personal while 'Wandering Eye' - about a bounder with murderous intent - you'd suspect is more fanciful. The lyrics are always evocative and fairytalesque with woods and wolves and monsters, and while on paper that could imply tweeness, Harcourt's songs somehow inhabit a world that is never short of enchanting. It stands to reason in an age where gimmickry will get you noticed that Harcourt would go back to basics and make his most coherent album yet by stripping everything back. Austerity suits him almost as much as being a grown up does.