Who is Ed Harcourt? British music fans know the name better than Americans, but the question goes beyond name recognition. Does Ed Harcourt really know who he is? On Harcourt's accomplished new Strangers, his fourth solo release, the answer seems to change from song to song. On one track, he's a Ryan Adams-influenced ragged pop songwriter. On the next, he looks to Coldplay for inspiration. Jettisoning some of the Tom Waits-like cragginess of earlier efforts, the album ranges from mopey troubadourism to stabs at pure pop. There's little rhyme or reason to it, and the whole doesn't equal the sum of its parts. But many of the parts are worth noting.
While Harcourt never quite makes the other styles his own, or proves himself a master of any, Strangers remains tough to dismiss. The opening track, "The Storm Is Coming," suggests an overproduced mess will follow, but Harcourt starts peeling back the layers immediately with "Born In The '70s," a pub-rock-ready kiss-off to previous generations that never pauses to consider the irony of how much it owes to music of another generation. Harcourt slows it down plenty, however, for "This One's For You," a teary ballad that could pass as an Old 97s outtake, and the heartache gets blown up on a grand scale with "Loneliness," a sweeping expression of woe that's the album's catchiest song.
Like other highlights, it works almost in spite of production and arrangements that conspire to file away at the songs' rough edges. Next time, Harcourt might consider leaving them in place. He's got a gift for songcraft, but the songs too often take a backseat to the craft. With Strangers, he's again given notice that he's a talent to watch, but if he wants fans to keep watching, the next one should probably come from the heart.