Ed Harcourt has said that he sees this six-track mini-album as something of a placeholder, as he prepares to record his next full-fledged opus — an album of “evil songs” to be produced by Flood. Even allowing for a measure of self-deprecating false modesty, Harcourt is doing Time of Dust a disservice. It’s a fine record, a brisk and bracing survey of the darker side of an artist whose defining moments to date — 2004′s Strangers, especially — have tended towards breezy singer-songwriterly pop.
It doesn’t take much of Time of Dust to identify the pathfinders Harcourt is hoping to follow. The spectres of Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Scott Walker loom heavily over the first couple of songs in particular. “Come Into My Dreamland” and “In My Time of Dust” heave with Bad Seeds-esque plinking pub pianos, funereal drums and clanging chimes, creating a gloom which casts Harcourt’s voice, treacle-sweet even when strained and distorted, into stark relief.
Even when Harcourt does indulge some lyrical playfulness, on “The Saddest Orchestra (It Only Plays For You)” the sound remains resolutely somber: It’s a thing of mournful, lachrymose majesty, evocative of The Divine Comedy circa “A Short Album About Love.” However, fans of Harcourt’s more upbeat tendencies are not altogether excluded: “We All Went Down With The Ship” is a welcome reassurance that Harcourt still can’t entirely resist an irresistible chorus.