When I was talking to Sean, whose record label released this album, we decided there ought to be a term for this kind of music which I tend to refer to as ‘gloriously morose’. Music that wallows in its own downbeat mire in way so thoroughly comfortable you’d almost think all that misery was actually a deep sense of satisfaction. It’s sort of like a grown-up version of emo – music which is miserable as fuck, but somehow proud of it, and perfectly content with being miserable, thank you.
Harcourt has a sense of humour of course, as the song below suggests and the video of him playing Gin & Juice on his website conclusively proves, so I don’t think we should take the rolling piano and keening in his voice to be anything defeatist, it’s just how some people express themselves when they are being contemplative. And if there’s a single word I would use to describe this album I think it would be that: contemplative.
Funnily enough, however, it wasn’t that kind of music which got me into Ed Harcourt in the first place, despite it being perhaps the single most prominent characteristic of his work. No, that would have been the playful bombast of Shanghai, from his 2001 debut release Here Be Monsters. At the time my music taste was in a bit of a state of flux, caught between the the rich melancholia of the likes of Harcourt, Richard Hawley and even Sparklehorse on one side, the experimentalism of Kid A and Amnesiac on another, and the raucousness of the early White Stripes releases on another. I had a proper job for the first time, access to Napster, and was exploring and buying new music at a hell of a rate, so there is a lot of music from that part of my life which I ended up leaving behind, both intentionally and otherwise.
I say this without malice, but it’s entirely possible had I not personally known the label involved, that this release might have passed me by altogether. What with there being so much music out there there is perhaps less attraction in revisiting artists you thought you had moved beyond, even if you did so entirely by accident.
Oddly enough, though, it is this sense of being slightly out of time which perhaps helps me to enjoy this album as much as I do. Harcourt is in a different place to me, personally. The second song on the album is about his newborn child, and with Last Will and Testament at the end and lyrics like “I’ve nothing left to prove” in the middle, you get the impression he is surveying the status quo and taking stock, to some extent. As his status quo is so very different to mine – only two years his elder – and his lyrics fairly unadorned and literal I might find it difficult to engage with some of this, but the nostalgia invoked by not having listened to his music for so long provides a neat analogue to the ‘state of play’ observations made on the album. He sings songs about who he has become, and in looking back to when I first heard his stuff over ten years ago, I find myself contemplating the same.
There are some wonderfully rich moments on this album, too, where the swirl of piano seems to scoop up other instruments into brief eddies of orchestralism. This kind of ebb and flow prevents Back Into the Woods getting oppressive or boring, but while there aren’t really any weak songs on here, Harcourt doesn’t really deal in the kind of melody which you will find yourself humming as you walk down the street, so beyond an enjoyment of the general sound, it took me a while to get into the whole of the album on a level beyond that of pleasant background ambience.
Generally when I moved beyond that, to specifically liking the individual songs, it happened as the lyrics sank in. So I would recommend you take some time with this and don’t rush it. Buy it on vinyl, put your feet up, have a glass of wine and indulge in whatever it is we grown-ups listen to instead of downbeat emo.