Mick Harvey‘s official biography says that he “has always thought of himself primarily as a collaborator” – understandable given the success of his collaborations with PJ Harvey, Rowland S Howard and Nick Cave, and in a way, Four (Acts of Love) can also be seen as a collaboration, although of a quite different nature.The album comprises a suite in three acts, pieced together from songs and musical snippets of Harvey’s, interspersed with covers. The songs mostly alternate between the originals and the covers, forming a conversation between Harvey and his influences and contemporaries. The sound palette and arrangements will be familiar to anyone who has followed his past work with any interest; Harvey’s skill at judging just what to leave out is as acute as ever. One story goes that when Einstürzende Neubauten were stuck as to what to add to a basic bass/vocal track they had come up with, they roped in Harvey to be producer. He accepted the job, only to immediately declare the song finished. The Bad Seeds and Crime & the City Solution have no doubt likewise benefited from his astute judgment in the past.
Each ‘act’ is named after one of the covers: “Act 1 – Summertime in New York” features Exuma‘s cult 1972 track of that name; “Act 2 – The Story of Love” climaxes with a sand-blasted and sun-bleached makeover of The Saints‘ 1977 album track and “Act 3 – Wild Hearts Run Out of Time” takes its title from Roy Orbison‘s 1985 no.76 UK chart (minor) hit. In addition, there is a version of Van Morrison‘s “The Way Young Lovers Do” and an unreleased PJ Harvey composition “Glorious.” The songs seamlessly flow together, opening and closing with versions of “Praise the Earth” – one of Harvey’s most beautiful compositions to date. The opening version’s chiming tremolo guitars seem full of the hope of sunrise, while the longer closing version looks back from the dusk, tinged with regret but deepened by experience.Maybe it’s an Australian thing, growing up in those big empty spaces, but Harvey creates a music that’s both intimate, confiding secret truths into your ear, and simultaneously expansively epic. Fellow countrymen The Triffids were masters of this approach, as to an extent were The Laughing Clowns and The Go-Betweens. Australians uniquely can do ‘epic’ – whenever Europeans or Americans try it we end up with U2 or Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, “I Wish That I Were a Stone” could be “Born to Run”… if the latter had been 1 minute 34 seconds long and drained of its self-important pomposity.
Although around half the running time of ‘Four (Acts of Love) originated from other writers, Mick Harvey has woven together a unique and emotionally engaging album that is entirely his own. Moreover, it is probably his finest solo achievement to date and the most satisfying release by an ex-member of The Birthday Party so far this year.