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Mick Harvey Cuts Bad Seeds Career Short to Write Songs About Death

After drawing the curtains on 20 years in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, you’d think Mick Harvey would be ready to seize the spotlight. But even with a brilliant new solo album, ‘Sketches From the Book of the Dead,’ out this week and racking up positive reviews, Harvey’s not making any promises of floods of material — he’s not even sure whether it’s a one-off or the beginning of a modest series.

“It could be either,” he said. “Though I’m leaning more in the former direction. It seems like every time I put out an album, it’s treated as a debut.”

In fact, ‘Book of the Dead’ — whose stark, mournful songs are all on the same dark subject — is the sixth solo album from the former member of post-punks the Birthday Party, but this is the first one entirely made up of his own material.

Harvey admits he’s not so enthused about the part of being a solo artist that involves branding yourself. “I’m not really very interested in that sort of thing. I really believe that the songs should stand on their own.”

And they do. Each song tackles a death, though from different perspectives, ranging from wistful first-person remembrances (the candid ‘Two Paintings’) to ‘A Place Called Passion,’ the historical narrative of a relative who died at Passchendaele — a town in France known for its major and especially bloody series of clashes during World War I — which claimed scores of troops, but particularly Canadians and Australians.

“There were lots of Australians, I think it was the third battle. Though I wouldn’t say it’s the story of the battle, it’s more about this person’s story. More about my memories.”

One song even imagines its singer’s own passing, in the beautifully elegiac ‘How Would I Leave You?,’ a halting piano ballad that sets up the wry album-closer ‘Famous Last Words.’ Harvey says, “The last two songs are meant to give it a lighthearted kind of twist.” They weren’t part of a grand design, however; the album’s songs were collected over time, Harvey explains, rather than conceived as of a piece.

“I wrote about fourteen songs, and narrowed it down to about nine. Some friends suggested that nine is a good concise number, and I suspect they were right.”

While he has a limited series of tour dates planned, Harvey will mostly be playing with PJ Harvey this year, whose latest album, the acclaimed ‘Let England Shake,’ he co-produced with John Parish, Flood and Ms. Harvey herself.

“Polly comes in with the songs fully written, and then John and I build arrangements around them,” he says, “although this time there was much more leeway; normally she comes in with specific ideas about certain instrument parts, but this time there was a lot more opportunity for reinvention.” The group’s chemistry didn’t hurt, either; “there was an, er, spirited atmosphere in the studio,” he says with a laugh.

By contrast, Harvey’s nearly four-decade collaboration with Nick Cave, wasn’t ended on especially good terms, with the ex-Bad Seed citing rifts over artistic direction. On the subject of possible reunions down the road, however, Harvey points out that although he’s left the band, the Bad Seeds aren’t officially toast.

“Whether Nick wants to call it something else, I don’t know. They haven’t done the post-mortem yet.” However, with more deluxe Bad Seeds album reissues on the way, which Harvey had a hand in producing (“the 5.1 surround mixes are done, if you can hear the difference,” Harvey quips), the musician won’t rule out the possibility of sharing a stage with Cave again.

“If they do those complete albums type of shows, then I imagine Nick would reassemble the original players. I would be open to that.”