His most mature effort so far finds Ed Harcourt shifting his attention from the purely personal concerns of From Every Sphere and Strangers - inspired by bereavement and romantic upheaval - but without the loss of conviction of the latter's more tangential moments. "I'm the singer who hates how he lives/ I'm the liar who gets what he gives," he sings on "Rain on the Pretty Ones", and he could be anatomising the basic plight of the songwriter, torn between revelation and invention.
As before, the late-20th century, piano-based songsmiths - Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, Tom Waits and Harry Nilsson - cast a long shadow over Harcourt's work. But there's something in his mild, warm vocal tone that recalls Nick Drake, particularly swathed in strings on "You Only Call Me When You're Drunk", an observation about how alcohol loosens up repressed bitterness and spite.
It's only one of a clutch of songs dealing with bad habits. "The Last Cigarette" revisits his former preoccupation with illness and death, as a smoker "blind to the very horror of his sorry life" sucks down his last few lungfuls, while "I Am the Drug" employs a Tom Waits-ian rhumba-rock groove washed with strings and streaked with spiky, astringent guitar to help characterise the insatiable itch of addiction: "I am the drug that you've been waiting for/ An absent craving you cannot ignore/ I am the fix that you come back for more".
While much of the album follows Harcourt's familiar piano and strings format, his arrangements also take in pedal steel, trumpet and even optigon strings on the jazzy "Until Tomorrow Then". "The Pristine Claw" features two intertwined guitars whose timbres more resemble harp or dulcimer; while the galumphing, discordant waltz of "Scatterbraine" recalls the mannered theatrical menace of The Tiger Lillies, as the singer sketches his story of a dim-witted criminal who behaves "like a priest in a brothel".
This suggests that Harcourt's true calling may yet lie in bringing a fresh approach to musicals, albeit musicals of a somewhat melancholy bent, judging by the downbeat, doom-laden tone of songs like "The Pristine Claw", "Braille" and the Nilsson-esque "Visit from the Dead Dog", which is only partially offset by the positive mood of the closing "Good Friends Are Hard to Find". But whatever he takes on will be tackled with skill and taste, judging by The Beautiful Lie: apart from "Revolution in the Heart", a ponderous wannabe-anthem in the manner of Embrace, there's hardly a track here lacking some element of interest.
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