When Jeff Buckley splashed into the Mississippi River that warm spring night eight years ago, he left a trail of ripples that continues to lap at the feet of the modern singer-songwriter. This isn’t an insight so much as a statement of fact, as undeniable as a Chuck Berry guitar lick. But if you needed any convincing, England’s Ed Harcourt has supplied us with his third full-length, Strangers, a collection of bold, piano-driven odes to love, youth and alcohol riding high on Buckley’s — er, Harcourt’s — aching tenor.
Astralwerks may bitch and moan that they’ve heard this all before, that it’s grossly unfair Buckley’s name gets mentioned first. And they might be right. But tunes like “The Trapdoor” and “Open Book” speak for themselves. The former wraps itself in the tatters of an old acoustic guitar, and the latter works a Steinway into a dramatic frenzy. And both, in their hallucinogenic self-absorption and their vocal theatrics, are unmistakably Buckley.
They remain, however, quite good, despite — or maybe because — of this very fact. Whether he’s reminding you of the dead guy in Memphis or the living one blasting through your speakers, Harcourt remains utterly convincing. On the wine-drenched “This One’s For You” (a tune Michael Stipe took to playing between songs on Harcourt’s recent tour with R.E.M.), a bleary-eyed trumpet and Harcourt’s slurred vocals perfectly capture the bliss of knowing you’ll have someone on your arm after last call. At the other end of the scale, “The Storm is Coming” has the troubadour “wired to the max” in a cold amphetamine rush, with its livid guitar squall and thundering piano. It would be easy to sight Buckley’s “Lilac Wine” and “Last Goodbye” in each instance, but to do so would be a denial of the plain quality of Harcourt’s tunes.
Somehow, Strangers stubbornly, impossibly, endures Harcourt’s influences. Though it certainly has its fair share of missteps, the success of the album’s tunes is not entirely dependent on the transparency of their heritage. At the end of the day, Harcourt remains a lesser-known talent with a universally-known voice.