Clash tells Mick Harvey that we’re worried he's having a mid-life crisis. His 2011 album, 'Sketches From The Book Of The Dead', focussed squarely on loss and the memories of people and events long passed away in time. But his new album ‘FOUR (Acts Of Love)’ (Clash review http://www.clashmusic.com/reviews/mick-harvey-four-acts-of-love) deals with big hairy questions about the importance – and often-exaggerated notions – of love.
"It's a constant mid-life crisis," he laughs dryly. "The new album's not meant to be some philosophical, deep-filled study of love's place in the scheme of things. But to some degree I was thinking about lots of those things whilst working on it. I really didn't want to bore everyone to death with my philosophical rantings."
Harvey is best known as a member of Nick Cave's bands from The Boys Next Door – an early form of what would become The Birthday Party – to The Bad Seeds, taking the role of Cave's arranger, co-writer and confidante for the best part of 36 years. He switched between pretty much any instrument you’d care to mention, acting as a steady, constant presence in Cave's line-ups until he parted company with the Bad Seeds in 2009.
His skills in the right-hand-man department have seen him work in the band of one Polly Jean Harvey (no relation) since 1995's 'To Bring You My Love', culminating in the clangourous drama of 2011's 'Let England Shake' (Clash review), which Harvey co-produced.
Concurrently, Harvey has released two albums of Serge Gainsbourg songs, a rowdy EP as The Wallbangers, produced several bands, scored various soundtracks and recorded his current series of solo albums, this latest being his fourth in said run and sixth studio set overall.
'FOUR (Acts Of Love)' is presented as a song cycle, a story of the ups and downs of a relationship through three distinct phases. It collects covers of songs that Harvey really liked: from Roy Orbison and Van Morrison to Exuma and The Saints – the latter a band that Cave and Harvey would sing covers of at high school concerts. There are originals, too, and an exclusive, previously unrecorded song from PJ Harvey.
"When I started making this series of albums, I had a gigantic list of songs which I was interested in looking at doing, including songs of my own," explains Harvey of the genesis of ‘FOUR’. "After I'd done (2007’s) 'Two Of Diamonds', I'd done two whole albums of this stuff, and what I was left with was this group of songs that I was still very interested in doing.
“When I looked at them and tried to work out why I hadn't already done them or why they hadn't fitted with the first two albums in the series, I realised that their subject matter was predominantly about love. They were kind of love songs, or they were dealing with that issue, which I didn't really feel fit with those first two albums."
Harvey explains that, on some subconscious level, he had been seeking to avoid recording love songs. "I was trying to look at other things I suppose," he admits. "Maybe having dealt so much with love songs over the years with Nick, maybe I was just trying to stay away from that direct subject.”
He continues: “When I started looking at what I could do with those songs, I suppose the idea of kind of doing a song cycle about the passage or course of a romantic relationship was something that presented itself as a fairly obvious thing to try. I thought I'd start with that and see what happened – and what happened, of course, was that I started moving away from that idea and found lots of questions I wanted to ask. I didn't want to necessarily push hard for the answers; I just wanted to throw up other ideas about the whole situation."
- - -
- - -
Clash asks why he thinks themes of love are so ingrained in music. "In the culture we come from, it's a very, very common subject," Harvey reflects. "It's one of the more affecting things that goes on in your life, so you tend to write about it. It's a funny subject too, because it's actually very self-referential, it's not very outward-looking a lot of the time, and it can shed light on other things as well, other aspects of being and thinking. It's certainly shed some light onto the inner workings of my mind!”
“So whilst on the one hand it sometimes, to me, seems a little shallow,” he continues, “on the other hand it's also a very useful tool and an important vehicle for ideas and emotional expression. I find it hard as an artist to be sure how I feel about it all the time. I just know it's something that needs to be looked at."
The way Harvey chose to examine that was by paring the songs right back to their essence. Each song is presented with a rich, emotional depth from subtle, sensitive arrangements courtesy of his frequent collaborators Rosie Westbrook and JP Shilo. These are songs that take you through a range of emotions, from the weary fragility of Roy Orbison's 'Wild Hearts (Run Out Of Time)' through to the grandiose optimism of both versions of Harvey's own 'Praise The Earth' that bookend the album.
The version of Van Morrison's 'The Way Young Lovers Do' is Harvey's attempt to salvage Morrison's underlying message, something that he felt had become swamped under the original's typically overblown, busy production. The surprise in amongst this collection is Harvey's take on Exuma's 'Summertime In New York', which Clash suggests to Mick feels like a more mature Birthday Party.
"I can hear that," he agrees. "It happened naturally. It has a 5/4 tempo and it's got a kind of jazzy riff. I haven't played something like that for a while. JP said that if anyone was allowed to do it, I was. It is a bit of a special one. I'd done a demo of it a while back and I couldn't work out what to do with it.
“I realised that it has a place in the imaginary story on ‘FOUR’ – it's the place the person's gone to in between the relationships. He's gone to a new place, doing a different thing with his life, but it was actually just an excuse to find a way of being able to do that song. I love that song. But it does actually fit quite well in that context."
Harvey admits that now he's got some of the heavy, serious subject matter out of the way, he does feel like he needs some sort of "release". He speaks about possibly returning to the Wallbangers project, or touring his Serge songs with a full string section in the wake of his slimmed-down band performing those songs at the recent Yeah Yeah Yeahs-curated I'll Be Your Mirror event.
"I'd kinda been toying around with performing the Serge tracks," Harvey explains. "Mute are planning a reissue of the two Gainsbourg albums in the second half of the year, with some extra tracks. I think I'd mentioned to a few people that I was thinking of finally playing some shows of that stuff because I've got so much distance from it now.
“That might be something that's a bit of a release too, actually, just to do something quite like that, something quite different from what I'd be normally doing now. Yeah Yeah Yeahs must have got wind of that, and they just asked me if I'd do it at their ATP event.”
And if you saw Mick at the YYY-curated I'll Be Your Mirror, why not tell us about it? Tweet Clash @clash_music.
- - -
Words: Mat Smith
Read Clash’s review of ‘FOUR (Acts Of Love’) here
Get the best of Clash on your iPhone - download the app here