Two of Diamonds
egardless of how worthwhile their solo work might be, some artists are simply destined to be sidemen in perpetuity. One can split those sidemen into two categories, more or less. History is littered with musicians who might be hot shit as part of a band, but give them their own blank canvas to fill and the results are hot garbage. Others make low-profile, critically acclaimed solo records from time to time, but can never quite step out of the shadow of the main gig.
Mick Harvey is best known as the longest tenured of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, as well as a Boys Next Door and Birthday Party participant, and was a key cog in Simon Bonney’s criminally forgotten Crime and the City Solution. But his solo career, covering four proper albums and a handful of soundtracks since his debut in 1995, has never gotten its due, which defies logic to some degree. Other than Cave himself, no one has been more responsible for the Bad Seeds signature tones than Harvey, with his prowess on multiple instruments, skill at songwriting, and knack for adding that perfect accompaniment to tracks in need of color—Harvey is the steady canvas for Cave to splatter his paint over.
Those solo albums, however, show that Harvey is still searching for his own musical identity beyond the shadow of his day job as a first-class foil. Two of his albums have been entirely comprised of Serge Gainsbourg covers, and the vast majority of the material on Two of Diamonds comes from the pens of others. But what makes this album entirely more satisfying is the variety of material Harvey chooses, allowing him to show his own skills (and complementary songwriting chops on his originals, as well) and to really forge his own sound.
While his last solo effort (2005’s One Man’s Treasure) featured Harvey almost entirely alone in the studio, this time out he is accompanied by various other Bad Seeds. Harvey creates a dark, heady sound not unlike Cave’s recent material (no big surprise), but with similar tools in hand, he shows some subtle differences between them. Rich, textured, melancholy, and full of space, Harvey seems on first listen like he might simply be aping Cave’s balladeer side, but when you take into account his song choices, the distinctions come further into focus. The majority of the material here comes from fellow Australians, and it soon becomes clear that Harvey is, in fact, trying to forge his own identity by identifying himself through the familiar.
His haunting take on the Saints’ “Photograph” kicks off the album, and Harvey covers several other Aussie peers throughout—the Loved Ones, the Triffids, the Cruel Sea, and his old running mates Crime and the City Solution, reinterpreting “Home Is Far from Here” from their 1988 album Shine. He also hits some favored Americans, like Bill Withers and Emmylou Harris, showing his influences to be more diverse than one might expect. His own originals are well crafted, sliding seamlessly into the proceedings, but the real triumph for Harvey is the fact that it all sounds like Mick Harvey, regardless of origin.
Harvey has still got a way to go to prove himself as a genuine solo artist in the traditional sense of the term, but the results here are worth hearing, regardless of whether they are original, derivative, or a fusion of both. For all the distinctive voices out there that are capable of writing their own material in their own unique voice, it can be argued that it is more of a challenge to find one’s own sound in the work of others, to interpret with distinction. Those that can pull this trick off are a short list—Johnny Cash in his later years and Scott Walker in his early years spring to mind, and are apt comparisons to Harvey’s work here. Should Harvey decide to continue down this path, there are likely more gems like this to come, though they are equally likely to come without accolades or widespread acclaim. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the world at large will always see you as a sideman.