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This review is from: Poetic Justice (Audio CD)
In 1996, English singer/songwriter Steve Harley, best known for his band Cockney Rebel and the UK number one hit Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), released his first album since 1992. After Cockney Rebel's success fell into decline, Harley's attempt at launching a successful solo career failed during the late 1970s, and Harley entered what he considers to be his wilderness years. A handful of singles were released during the 1980s, however nothing was released to major success. After starting to perform live more frequently, as well as reforming a new version of Cockney Rebel, Harley released the 1992 album Yes You Can. It was four years later that Harley's own produced album Poetic Justice was released - an album that featured a fine set of subdued and mature tracks that proved Harley was far from a spent force - highlighting great musicianship throughout and a unique folk-pop/soul sound.
That's My Life in Your Hands, written by Harley and Hugh Nicholson, opens the album in the most effective way possible and immediately introduces the album's well-crafted sound - certainly giving a feeling that this album's creation was a labour of love. A fine strumming acoustic guitar paves the song's main melody, whilst Harley's vocal throughout takes the spotlight. Here he noticeably sounds more mature than ever and it fits the album's style perfectly. The song's chorus has enough offering to supply a meaningful message and also a memorable, catchy sound.
A familiar song to many follows in the form of What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? - the 1966 hit from Jimmy Ruffin - written by James Dean, Paul Riser and William Weatherspoon. Harley's version is driven by guitar and again allows his vocals to shine out effectively. This set-up in turn gives the song's message plenty of meaning and with Harley's vocal sounding as it does - there's plenty of honesty in there, with a down-to-earth theme. As the opening guitar paves the song's great melody, Harley's vocal soon grabs the listener and doesn't let go from then on.
Two Damn'd Lies is the kind of song that sinks into the subconscious and the melody itself soon takes effect and demands repeated listens. Written by Harley, this fine song largely focuses on piano, thoughtful lyrics and Harley's effective, meaningful and honest vocal. The piano melody is not sad, but nor is it happy. Instead it remains stuck between the two - almost reflective and subtle. Harley's vocal grabs the listener's attention and certainly strikes the right chord. He delivers the song's lyrics in the exact way they need to be in order for the message to be effective.
Loveless brings the tempo back up again and highlights both an infectious and mature sound with a folksy edge to the track. Written by Harley alone, this track is certainly effective throughout. The song uses a highly memorable mix of backing organ and piano to back Harley's mature and rich vocal delivery. A short chorus-like add on to each verse is another notable moment for its message and infectiousness - with the message essentially being summed up and given directly to the listener.
Strange Communications is a gentle and light song that highlights somewhat of a folksy theme amongst its piano melody that plods along nicely throughout. This particular melody seems to have the ability to grab the listener right away and this only becomes stronger when Harley's vocal takes the spotlight. He gives another mature and down-to-earth vocal, with the track revolving around one vocal section and a catchy chant-like vocal. A minute into the song and Harley is aided by backing female vocal who sings along for the rest of the track, and in fitting with the lyrical message, this works effectively.
All in a Life's Work highlights not only more great maturity but instrumentation that remains memorable and highly effective throughout. One of many standouts on the album, this great track immediately invites you into its spell with a fine mix of guitar, piano and organ. The verses use minimal instrumentation, mainly some gorgeous guitar licks and organ, in order to send out the lyrics in the best way possible. Harley is in fine voice from start to finish and the comfortable feel he gives off makes the song all the more effective. The song's chorus, aided by female backing vocal, is nothing short of grand.
Love Minus Zero-No Limit is a grand and overall excellent cover of the 1965 hit Bob Dylan song. For Harley's six-minute cover version, he highlights the emotion within his vocal and some gentle, peaceful but powerful instrumentation that easily has great effect on the listener. The song was recorded as a tribute to Dylan. The grand keyboard drones that open the song in fine atmosphere soon pave a nice backing for Harley's mature, dominant and rich vocal. Aside from the main vocal sections, there are plenty of instrumental sections that highlight various rich instruments including violin, harmonica and later guitar.
Safe is an emotive piano-based ballad which really highlights great sadness in the sound and lyrically great devotion to a loved one. The song's not moody in any way, but with the use of the slow, gentle and almost haunting piano, the song immediately captures an effective atmosphere. However, when Harley's vocal joins, the song takes off to great heights. For this track, Harley's vocal has such an array of emotion, truthfulness, pain and sadness that the song's effect is nothing short of mesmerizing. The fact that Harley's vocal already has such a down-to-earth and honest edge, this song certainly makes best use of his underrated talent as a vocalist.
The Last Time I Saw You is probably the album's best known track although still vastly underrated. Amongst Steve Harley fans, this song has become a firm favourite. A true highlight on the album, this emotive ballad displays a whole array of feeling and mood from start to finish. Immediately the song's `sweeping' entrance leads to a fantastically chilling piano melody. The gorgeous synthesizer drone backing carries Harley's vocal wonderfully well, which itself is extremely emotive, honest and powerful. His vocal hits the right spot each and every time, and makes the song all the more effective.
Crazy Love is a cover of the Van Morrison hit from 1970. No doubt an artist that Harley drew musical inspiration from, this great cover version doesn't stray too far from the original but simply adds Harley's own spin on the song. The folksy opening guitar immediately sets the mood and Harley's vocal soon joins - full of dominance and meaningfulness. A highly infectious chorus follows and again Harley gives a powerful vocal, whilst some great female backing adds to the section's memorability. Adding some warmth to the song, background organ is added to the song almost midway and really works to great effect.
The album's closing track Riding the Waves (For Virginia Woolf) had originally appeared on the 1978 album Hobo with a Grin. A vastly underrated song, its no surprise why Harley decided to re-record it. This version doesn't stray too far from the original as such, however simply updates it and makes it fit with the album sound of Poetic Justice. The song's opening guitar and backing instrumentation recalls the motion of waves and immediately fits with the song's lyrics and title. Harley's vocal, as always, is mature, rich and memorable. Organ provides Harley with some background warmth from the first chorus onwards, and the song's mood certainly becomes stronger and stronger.
Upon release, Poetic Justice found critical acclaim from both professional critics and Steve Harley fans. With Harley's commercial appeal long in the past, the album didn't enter the UK charts, although it certainly deserved to. No singles were released from the album, despite various tracks being more than worthy contenders. Allmusic reviewer Thom Jurek had called the album a "very solid and subdued set", summing up the album by stating "Poetic Justice is fine work top to bottom, and should be owned by any fan, or investigated by the curious." Apparently even Harley himself believes this to be his best album.
I highly recommend this album to any fan of mature, memorable and high quality pop-rock with a folksy, sometimes bluesy edge. Harley has the ability to craft a rich, infectious tune, and some very poetic, meaningful lyrics. Even Harley's friend Rod Stewart has gone on record to say Harley is "one of the finest lyricists the UK has ever produced", and his usual high standard of lyrical writing is very evident on this album. Each song offers something slightly different so the album remains fresh and interesting with the more up-tempo songs mixed in with various mid-tempo tracks and ballads. There isn't actually a bad track on the album. Whilst his work has always been rather mature and poetic, this album certainly delivers an even stronger mood, and it's only a shame that the album remains so underrated. Overall, Poetic Justice is a fantastic set of rich, mature and unforgettable songs of pure emotion, power and poetry.