As a solo artist, Mick Harvey has always felt a little slight. His catalog consists mainly of covers, and although the instrumentation has varied from album to album, none of his music has reached the gothically dramatic heights of his work with The Birthday Party or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Then again, maybe that’s the point. There was a reason Harvey ended his 36-year collaboration with Cave in 2009, and it wasn’t to play songs that were identical to his past. He comes off as a gentle soul these days, a family man more likely to muse on the majesty of the world than pen something about dark lust and the Old Testament.
And that’s just what Harvey does on FOUR (Acts of Love). 2011’s Sketches From the Book of the Dead — his first record made up solely of original material — was his toothiest collection of tunes thanks to its heavier doses of distortion and actual murder ballads. But FOUR is a step in the other direction, a self-described song cycle that ponders the circular nature of romance through mostly other artists’ words. He does atonal Morrison on “The Way Young Lovers Do”, sadder Orbison on “Wild Hearts”, unreleased P.J. Harvey on “Glorious”, Tom Waits-ified Exuma on “Summertime in New York”, and Westernized Saints on “The Story of Love”.
While all of these versions differ wildly from their originals, they also lose a withering amount of weight due to arrangements that are generally sparser and slowed down. Oddly enough, Harvey’s strongest cover is a re-imagining of “Praise the Earth”. Taking a note from Neil Young, he bookends FOUR with two slightly different versions of the time-tested hymn, securing the cyclical theme of the album and painting a cosmic dream of love with sagebrush guitar and starry piano.
The other half of FOUR‘s tracks are original, and although they veer more on the foreboding side, they also end before Harvey can establish any kind of differing mood. All but one are well under two minutes, each of them serving as a footbridge to the next cover instead of standing on its own as a fully fleshed out song. It doesn’t help the dynamics much, but an album could do worse than being consistently pleasant, however slight it may be.
Essential Tracks: “Praise the Earth (Wheels of Amber and Gold)”, “Wild Hearts”, and “Praise the Earth (An Ephemeral Play)”