Mick Harvey – Sketches From The Book Of The Dead (Mute Records album, 2011)

Mick Harvey 'Sketches From The Book Of The Dead' CD artwork

mute artists | lp+cd/cd stumm329 | 02/05/2011

Unbelievably, despite being in his fifth decade of making music, this is Mick Harvey‘s first album of totally self-penned songs. Time spent in the bands of Nick Cave, Simon Bonney and PJ Harvey, plus all that time devoted to poring over the Serge Gainsbourg legacy for two albums, has evidently paid off; Sketches From The Book Of The Dead is an accomplished, yet understated, collection of eleven songs, all of which ruminate on death. The album was produced by Mick, who also plays guitars, piano, organ, electric bass and percussion. Harvey was also joined by Rosie Westbrook (double bass), J.P. Shilo (accordion, violin, electric guitar) and Xanthe Waite on backing vocals.

According to my new best friend Wikipedia ‘the Book of the Dead is the modern name of an ancient Egyptian funerary text, used from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BC) to around 50 BC.’ So now you know.

Overt reference to the Book of the Dead, or at least Harvey’s version, comes in the lyrics of the opening track, ‘October Boy’, which was made available as a free mp3 a few months before the album was released. ‘If you’re writing a song for the Book of the Dead / Then write one, write one for me,‘ sings Harvey in the voice of the October Boy of the title, while a dark, filmic, almost Morricone-esque backdrop underpins the black tale of a man anointed with a ‘sonic gun‘ who takes ‘rock ‘n roll poison’; that October Boy is almost certainly Rowland S. Howard, departed to the afterlife in recent years, and whose birth month was October. It is an unopinionated obituary to one of Howard’s earliest musical allies, the writer of the haunting ‘Shivers’ and his co-creator of amazing sounds in The Birthday Party.

‘The Ballad Of Jay Givens’ will be familiar to anyone who picked up a copy of Mute‘s Vorwärts compilation from earlier this year. This is Mick, with accompaniment from guitar, strings and organ, telling a dark tale of Givens, apparently his father’s best friend, a chap with a pretty dark and shady past. As a story set to music it’s absorbing and mysterious. ‘Two Paintings’ exists on a haunting musical tapestry of looping, often elegiac noise and mournful piano, depicting it seems, the separation from a loved one, featuring the descriptions of two paintings by Gustav Pillig. There are some truly moving moments in this song, particularly Mick’s wordless vocal harmonies at the very end. Pillig’s artwork adorns the sleeve and booklet, along with other paintings from Katy Beale.

‘Rhymeless’ is a clever, folksy piece whose verses are structured from fragments of well-known nursery rhymes. ‘All the songs that you never sang / To your little ones,‘ is a line which fills me with much regret. The song deals with children moving from being cherished to being effectively abandoned, neglected, deserted, forgotten, none of which I am remotely guilty of when it comes to my two wonderful daughters. But it does sadden me that my children seem to know the nursery rhymes that Harvey quotes from without me ever having once sung them those words. ‘Frankie T. & Frankie C.’ describes the love shared by the two characters of this song, a man and a woman both sharing the same first name; the way Harvey describes the spark shared between them reminds me of the way people of my grandparents’ generation might have described the first flushes of romance. Alas, the love of the two Frankies was to be short-lived, the death of Frankie C. leaving Frankie T. alone and mourning the loss of his beloved, finding himself spending his days longing after her and ultimately fading away in a bid to join her. While most of the backing has Harvey plucking elliptical patterns on his guitar over droning, carefully-sculpted sound, there are some fantastically heavy guitar crescendos at the end of the chorus.

In a neat play on words, ‘A Place Called Passion’ – a tale of someone lost during World War One – the front-line assault on Passchendaele and the word ‘passion’ are forced into an unhappy marriage, Harvey’s story of a relative who lost his life during the Great War evoked through the artefacts handed down to him – books bearing futile inscriptions from that relative’s parents pointing him toward a bright, but ultimately thwarted, future. This is the realities of conflict distilled into personal impact and significance. Like so many of the tracks on Sketches From The Book Of The Dead, ‘A Place Called Passion’ is extremely poignant. ‘To Each His Own’ is mysterious, a spoken-word poem of sorts over whining noise, with an intonation not unlike his former Bad Seeds bandmate Blixa Bargeld‘s spoken word pieces.

‘The Bells Never Rang’ is one of my personal favourite tracks, a ballad which takes us to Paris, rural Australia and Geneva over its three verses set to layers of strummed guitar that rise in intensity and urgency, only to drop away into a chorus of vocal harmonies and thin, reedy organ. This appears not to be a reflection on death of people per se, but on wasted opportunities, lost chances and relationships that fizzled out. ‘That’s All, Paul’ has a title that wouldn’t have gone amiss on one of Harvey’s Gainsbourg albums. Who Paul is we never know, but it would seem from the lyrics that young Paul, seemingly cut short in his prime, probably never really got to know himself either; Harvey is evidently bitter toward this pointless loss of life, which sounds as if it was caused by a single moment of recklessness. For that reason alone it reminds me of Rebel Without A Cause.

The album, fittingly, closes with the rousing single ‘Famous Last Words’, but it is preceded by one of the most evocative, moving love songs I’ve ever heard, ‘How Would I Leave You?’. Accordion, dramatic but sparse drums, piano and strummed guitars underpin Harvey reflecting on his attempts to leave somewhere (home?), his decision, or indecision, influenced by the wondrous nature he sees all around him. It all sounds idyllic, pristine, Walden-like, Harvey laconically and benevolently forced into inaction by the world he sees enveloping him.

Track listing:

lp+cd / cd:
1. October Boy
2. The Ballad Of Jay Givens
3. Two Paintings
4. Rhymeless
5. Frankie T. & Frankie C.
6. A Place Called Passion
7. To Each His Own
8. The Bells Never Rang
9. That’s All, Paul
10. How Do I Leave You?
11. Famous Last Words

First published 2011; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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4 thoughts on “Mick Harvey – Sketches From The Book Of The Dead (Mute Records album, 2011)

  1. Just as a matter of interest: ‘The Bells Never Rang’ is very much about a real person who was a common friend of Mick and mine. The title is a play on his name, and the places mentioned are actually Paris, South Yarra (in Melbourne) and Geneva.

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