Ed Harcourt returns this year with ‘Furnaces’, the most ambitious and fully-realised album of his career. It’s a record shot through with an eloquent fury that stares deeply into the modern world and asks where we’re all heading.
“These are songs about the menace and the threat that men in general pose to everything and everyone: women, children, nature,” says Harcourt. “We’ve tried to mess with Mother Nature and completely plunder it and destroy it, but it will always come back and bite us on the arse. The earth will be around forever, but we won’t. We’re just so arrogant. That was my catalyst for this album.”
The record was produced by Flood, a long-time ally of Harcourt, who has previously worked with the likes of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey and Nine Inch Nails. “He’s an unbelievable producer, he totally made me up my game,” says Harcourt, who explains that the pair would volley songs and ideas back and forth as they changed and warped into unexpected shapes. “That’s how we worked,” he says. “We were violently courting each other.”
The first songs Harcourt wrote for this record were ‘The World Is On Fire’, which now opens the album, and penultimate track ‘Immoral’. “I played those two songs to Flood and he said: ‘I see where you’re going with this, I think I can help you,’” says Harcourt, who says this album is intended as a broadside to the contemporary status quo: “I think someone needs to come along with a record like this. It feels like there are a lot of very bland, dull, safe artists out there at the moment. They could be the CEOs of record companies. I’m looking out at this world and not really liking what I’m seeing.”
Harcourt will tell you that the album isn’t a personal one, yet in writing an album of savage social commentary he’s also bared a little of his own soul. When he writes about protecting the environment, he’s also thinking about his own role as a father. When he writes about the male ego, he’s turning his forensic gaze on himself. It’s as if the prism he’s constructed to see the world has also allowed him a better view of himself.
Take for example the exuberant second track ‘Loup Garou’, which is named for the French legend of the werewolf and was inspired by Charles Mackay’s 19th century book ‘Extraordinary Delusions & The Madness Of Crowds’. “I guess I feel like the Loup Garou sometimes,” says Harcourt. “I’m a red-blooded male and have a tendency to be aggressive without meaning to be. Men like me should try to be less reactionary. I’ve always felt women shape the world — they can save it from the pugnacious man.”
The title track, ‘Furnaces’, is a satirical portrait of the havoc that mankind is wreaking on the environment, and takes issue with fracking and society’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for oil. “That song came from looking back at the speeches Cameron was making before he was elected, when he was talking about renewable energy,” explains Harcourt. “He was like a Pinocchio made of spam. He said all these things to get elected and then did a massive U-turn. I think the older you get, and once you have children, you bring them into the world and you realise: ‘We’re destroying the future.’ I think writing songs is my way of dealing with that stuff.”
While certain themes and ideas run through the album like red cords, Harcourt laughs that the protagonist of ‘Nothing But A Bad Trip’ is “purely on his own… probably grabbing at imaginary bats in the desert.” The song was inspired by the titular ‘bad trip’, and it rings with the experience that can only be gained through perpetually being the last man standing after long nights of excess. “I decided to turn it into a nightmarish joke,” he says, “because what happened wasn’t very fun at the time.”
While the issues that the album deals with are very real, it’s a canvas painted with vivid and hallucinogenic language. “In ‘Last Of Your Kind’ all of London is just falling into the river,” says Harcourt. “There are these fires going up everywhere, but you’re with the person who you’re so into that you’re just unaware of anything that’s going on around you. There’s mayhem and chaos, and there’s a thousand white horses running through, knocking over the Royal Family, and David Cameron is hiding in his bunker. It’s what I imagine would happen in the apocalypse. It’s very hopeful, in a screwed up way.”
Fittingly, the album’s artwork was created by the legendary Gonzo artist and Hunter S Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. “It’s a dream come true,” says Harcourt. “I went down to his house and he said: ‘What do you want?’ I looked through all his books, and the weirdest thing is he has an actual painting called ‘The World Is On Fire’, which was so bizarre. Sadly it was too dark to use as the cover, but I asked him for something like that. I think maybe he heard the line in ‘The World Is On Fire’ where I say: “I think I’m spitting out my heart.” It looks like a cross between a tsunami of fire and someone coughing up blood.”
As well as working with Steadman, Harcourt was also able to put together a dream line-up to record the album. Joining him and Flood in the studio were drummer Stella Mozgawa, of Warpaint, bassist Tom Herbert, of The Invisible, vocalist Hannah Lou Clark and percussionist Michael Blair, a frequent Tom Waits collaborator. “It was so much fun watching him,” says Harcourt. “I could see and hear why ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ sounds like it does. I’ve been very lucky with this record, everything I’ve wanted to get I’ve got.”
The result is an album that, for all it’s fire and brimstone, is also euphoric and celebratory. “I said to Flood: ‘Let’s make a record that people can cry and f*ck and fight to,’” says Harcourt. “I don’t think there are many records out like that at the moment, but all my favourite records have that, whether it’s Prince or Nine Inch Nails or Tom Waits. I hadn’t made a record before that has this kind of danger to it.”
‘Furnaces’ is Harcourt’s seventh album, and arrives 15 years after his Mercury Prize nominated debut ‘Here Be Monsters’. As well as his own records, Harcourt has produced and co-written for artists including James Bay, Paloma Faith and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and played live with The Libertines in 2015 at Glastonbury and Reading & Leeds and with Marianne Faithfull on her recent European tours. His single ‘The Way That I Live’ soundtracked Burberry’s Christmas campaign in 2014 and amassed 25 million YouTube views and 1 million Spotify streams.
“I feel like everything else before this record has just been a dress rehearsal,” says Harcourt. “Someone said that this record sounds truly like me, like the record I’ve always wanted to make, and I think that’s true.”
‘Furnaces’ is an album unlike any other you’ll hear this year. It is pure and true, and Harcourt performs it with a fierce kind of joy in his heart. “I don’t want to give too much else away,” he concludes. “Just dive in, I hope you enjoy it.”