The mysterious Harkness arrives with a debut that is as imaginative and exciting as anything else released in 2021. Awash with lush harmonies and full of unexpected left turns, this is a psych rock/pop masterpiece. Louder Than War’s Gordon Rutherford reviews.
This is bonkers. Utterly bonkers. And yet. And yet. Imagine peak late-sixties Brian Wilson entered into a free-for-all collaboration with early-noughties Flaming Lips. Smile meets the Soft Bulletin. That’s where we are. The Occasion is as wacky as the Polyphonic Spree taking over Glastonbury and just as brilliant, all created by a guy in a sci-fi visor and robes of shimmering lilac. He looks like some kind of space-age druid, come to lay his genius down upon us all. And that’s good, because, God knows, we need it.
Adding to the allure of this jaw-dropping collection is the enigmatic nature of the man behind the mask (or, to be more precise, the visor). We know, with absolute certainty, that he is Canadian, a native of Toronto. Almost Prince or Stevie Wonder-like, Harkness does virtually everything on this stunning debut album, The Occasion. He is a super-talented multi-instrumentalist who has spent the best part of a decade carefully honing his craft in preparation for this moment.
Beyond that, we don’t know much more, because in this age of the selfie and relentless self-promotion, Harkness has chosen a quite different route, electing to let the music do the talking. He puts this down to a life-changing epiphany in his early twenties, when he was “shown what appeared to be the blissful advantages of leading an imageless life,” hence the visor and gown. Harkness has effectively chosen to eschew a modern capitalist existence and decided that his music will speak for itself. Given the quality of the music, that’s just fine by me.
There is no messing around or scene-setting. The Occasion grips you immediately with the wild and sprawling eight minutes and twenty-six seconds of its title track. Announcing itself with an explosion, it then proceeds to shape like the soundtrack from the denouement of a sixties TV thriller. Following that, it’s like taking the Amalfi drive at one hundred miles per hour: a white-knuckle ride, chock-full of hair-raising twists and turns. There are massive Stravinsky-esque overtures, driving psych-pop and the lushest harmonies you will hear this side of the Atlantic. This single tune is like an album of ten tracks in one song, a veritable Bohemian Rhapsody for our times, and is probably the most ambitious thing I have encountered all year.
Just as you are recovering from that, Harkness lays the world’s catchiest hook on you. The Beck-like I.D. is so infectious, it should be legally required to double mask. From there, it’s into the uplifting and anthemic Tornado, propelled by Harkness’ soaring guitars. GM GM (an abbreviation for good morning) is pure Brian Wilson-inspired songwriting. It’s lush and melodic, and represents something of a change of pace from the headiness of the opening three tracks. But it’s also a really important milestone in this album, because as you take it in, you begin to realise just what a talented songwriter Harkness is. Before this moment, you are swept away in the rococo eccentricity and sheer exuberance of it all. Now, the penny drops.
Leaving you in no doubt about this cold realisation, the sumptuous piano ballad, Hymn, just serves to reinforce your newly-discovered perception. It’s like something that could have fallen out of The Beatles’ Revolver period, with ornate harmonies and exquisitely-produced baroque layers of sound. When the New Orleans-style brass kicks in, it elevates the track stratospherically.
This is followed by the cinematic The Opener, which surprisingly (or maybe not given the unconventionality of everything else here) is sequenced halfway through the album. Code is dramatic, whilst Shark Fin Soup is the kind of zany genius that 10CC used to turn out in their How Dare You era (check out Art For Art’s Sake if you want to know what I’m talking about). In a similar way, Harkness allows the music to have the freedom to go wherever it needs to. He doesn’t stifle it or impose rigid structure.
Defibrillator is another one of those vehicles for Harkness’ lush harmonies. It’s delicate and fragile as porcelain, before it takes a left turn and gets a little crazy. This seamlessly segues into the short paean to summer love, Lure Of The Pollen. With tubas, bassoons, flutes and marimbas all vying for your ears, it’s as chaotic as you might imagine. That brings us to the dramatic and orchestral closer, Moon Spell, which is a quite beautiful ballad that appears to be dissecting our Covid-riven, locked down planet. “Some other day we’ll wake our world from slumber,” yearns Harkness. Elegiac strings provide a mournful backdrop. Given all that has preceded it, it’s a fitting comedown.
There you have it. Harkness has released one of the year’s most ambitious and unique albums. It’s a collection of songs that seem free to roam where they choose, yet never fall apart. Chaotic, but never disjointed, it has lashings of drama and little conventionality. Surely, in such a bland, vanilla-flavoured world, such daring and boldness is something to celebrate. I do worry that it won’t get anywhere near the credit it deserves because of its creator’s desire to shun the spotlight. That would be a crying shame, because if any album deserves to be heard in 2021, it is this one.