Sketches from the Book of the Dead is Mick Harvey's first solo album since leaving the Bad Seeds, a group he was part of for 25 years, mostly as the band's musical director. It could just as easily have been titled "Sketches from My Book of the Dead". This collection of all-original songs was written as a memoriam for people, places, and things; it's a look at how the present impacts life as it moves toward its conclusion, and what will be left unsaid, undone; what will be left behind that matters. Harvey plays most of the instruments himself, with help from longtime collaborator J.P. Shilo on violin and accordion, bassist Rosie Westbrook, and backing vocals by Xanthe Waite. This is Harvey the songwriter; these are the most skillfully written, tender, and empathic tomes in his career thus far. "October Boy," the album opener, is obviously for the memory of former Birthday Party bandmate and collaborator Rowland S. Howard, who died in late 2009. Shilo contributes a second guitar played in Howard's signature stun gun style, it offers a direct look at Howard's life, his demons, and his obsessions. Its spaghetti western framework is balanced by a minor-key, two-chord vamp with feedback and tempered noise. "The Ballad of Jay Givens" is a meditation on the suicide of a friend of Harvey's father, in which he directly challenges the Anglican church's edict that suicides are "forbidden to enter heaven." He counters: "But I say, all is forgiven." "Frankie T. & Frankie C." is a modern folk tale of love both beautiful and tragic, revealed in Harvey's signature, subtle yet cinematic style. "Rhymeless" is a haunted, heartbreaking elegy. It's addressed to the bereft parents of deceased children and framed in a signature musical language that is elegant, always direct, and uncluttered. Harvey sums up Sketches from the Book of the Dead with two songs that alternately counter loss with beauty and bravado: "How Would I Leave You" features his lilting piano, which creates a melodic line for a sublime poetic reflection on the questions framing one's taking leave of his beloved and friends. "Famous Last Words" is the bookend: a swaggering rock & roll tune full of razor-blade guitars, fuzzed-out basslines, and tribal percussion, that answers both the Grim Reaper and God himself with wonderfully gaudy panache. Harvey's music has never been more self-assured than it is here, and this album marks the dawn of a new era for him as an artist.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek