‘s name might not be immediately recognizable, but it does carry plenty of pedigree. Dating back to their childhood, Harvey and Nick Cave (yes, that Nick Cave) have been in bands together, from The Birthday Party to The Bad Seeds. Harvey may have split from the Seeds in 2009 after a rumored strain in his relationship with Cave, but that doesn’t mean his creativity was relegated to that collaboration. In fact, Harvey has released two albums of Serge Gainsbourg covers, written soundtracks, and worked with PJ Harvey (no relation). Sketches From the Book of the Dead
, though, is the multi-instrumentalist’s first album composed entirely of his own songs and without any Bad Seeds in tow.
Harvey takes this new opportunity to write richly narrated, dark, noir-y tracks full of epic tragedy and murder. Cave fans might find that that sounds pretty familiar, and it should. Harvey’s not taking a huge step away from Cave, either in style or content. That said, his versions aren’t inferior, or necessarily “rip-offs.” For instance, opening track “October Boy” features dusty acoustic guitar, lush multi-tracked vocals, and lyrics referencing the Book of the Dead. The smoky, evocative tunes sound like they were just uncovered in a lost speakeasy, rather than freshly written.
The disc does wear on a bit thin after time. The repeatedly dark and grimy narratives bleed into one another quite readily. The rime-covered acoustic suicide story “The Ballad of Jay Givens” packs an emotional wallop, but when immediately followed by the piano-heavy “Two Paintings” about faded happiness, it piles on a little too much. Rather than providing a hook or cathartic moment, Harvey builds on dark atmospherics until they become a wall of icy tragedy, encapsulating the listener. While this certainly makes for a potent experience, it doesn’t exactly bode well for a nice afternoon listen. As such, it’s an album dependent on listener mood and one that can often feel droningly dark and unfocused.