Reporting and writing by Kyle Cochrun
We’re over four decades removed from when Harvey Gold bellowed in “Puppet Wipes” – Tin Huey’s avant-punk evocation of b-grade horror flicks – that his car was filled with tons of puppet heads. Earlier this summer, the founding member of Tin Huey released the single “Eidola: Inadvertently for Ralph” in anticipation of his first solo album, It’s Messy Vol. 1.
If you were hoping this guy was still making weird music, you’ll be relieved to learn that “Eidola” resembles a conventional pop song about as much as a splattering of egg yolk dripping from the kitchen ceiling resembles an omelet.
The song features a burping guitar loop and a barrage of keyboard tones obdurately dinging past the tambourine’s faint rhythmic suggestion. The bass froths up from the left channel before plunging back under the slathering of synthesizers and guitar. The lyrics are a reverse haiku, which Harvey wrote to piss off a friend who challenged him to write a haiku. He describes the song’s dismal second half as an “RM-20 experiment in terror.” Fever dream fades to post-apocalyptic smolder.
Harvey does not implore you to eat a dead armadillo this time around. Nevertheless, It’s Messy Vol. 1 packs plenty of musical and lyrical quirks into songs about subjects as wide-ranging as crazed exes, Joe Strummer, codependency, tenant/landlord squabbles in the old west, growing older and “how the way one is addressed as a child profoundly influences the resultant adult.”
“Then there’s the Music Hall tune to my ophthalmologist who provided an odd method for dealing with a sty on my eye,” Harvey says.
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The aforementioned ditty, “Song for Joanna,” closes the album with a cutesy piano melody fit for a cereal jingle. Harvey’s lyrics complete the joke before turning into a register of the different ways he’s working to stay healthy: “Corn Flakes, Shredded Wheat, Farina and Maypo / Cocoa Crispies were my fave, by the way, but this is the dawn of another day / I’ve been through the yogurts and the quinoa cups / Ran a mile and a quarter before you even got up.” The treatment for his sty: “A hard-boiled egg pressed up against [his] eye.”
This seems a suitable cure for the man who recorded “March of the Elephants,” a dissonant discombobulate of Korg X-3 tones that Harvey credits to “spontaneous eruption onto a Boss RC-20 Loop Station.” The sketch sounds like it was generated from a child’s nightmarish songmaker, held together with Elmer’s and duct-tape and programmed to score stop-motion animation of an elephant pack’s trudge through hellfire.
Despite Harvey’s trademark eccentricities on display, the songwriting is more straightforward and a few shades bleaker than it was back when Tin Huey was searching out what rock critic Robert Christgau termed “the eternal secret of the whoopee cushion.” Harvey’s voice, which has acquired more gravel and low-end since the days of pink berets, magnifies the unease in the lyrics.
On album opener “Your Side of the Room,” he claims he’s “never felt quite so alone,” and the no-frills drum-and-bass palette suggests he’s serious. On the autobiographical “Lazy Boy,” he sings, “As I write this there’s a purpose / Starts with art and ends with pain.” On “In a Very Good Place” he repeats the lines “Am I always gonna worry about you?” and “Don’t think I’m gonna find a cure,” repeatedly dipping into a minor key. Throughout the album, discontent overshadows oddball innocuousness.
“Eidola” is dedicated to Harvey’s old Tin Huey bandmate, saxophonist Ralph Carney, who died in 2017 before getting to make the collaborative album the two had been discussing.
“It’s a song about the gathering of ghosts in my life,” Harvey says. “This happens with greater frequency as we get older.”
Carney’s ghost is there in “Eidola,” which includes a half-measure spattering of crisscrossed saxophones in his honor. “You will see your time passing,” Harvey sings. “So many ghosts now.”
“I believe we are all the versions of us that we’ve ever been,” Harvey says, “so a lot of different Harveys came to play [on It’s Messy Vol. 1].”
Which is to say Harvey Gold has lived a lot of life. Which is to say that, in some respects, this is an album about growing older. But Harvey disagrees.
“If I had put the album together in the chronological order of writing the songs, maybe it would appear to have a story of the passage of time as a theme,” he says. “Aging itself, always in motion, is messy, with a lot of voices to it, so certainly part of the album’s theme, but not the theme.”
“One song goes back 20 years, another even longer in its inception, though it ended up very, very different. One chunk of songs [is from] almost ten years ago, another grouping a couple years back, and a few more tracks are quite recent. But everything older got revisited, had tracks added, subtracted, remixed, and mastered for the album.”
Now that It’s Messy Vol. 1 is out in the world, Harvey is focused on his roles in other rock bands, playing keys for The HiFis and guitar for Golems of the Red Planet.
“I’m at a point in my musical life that is unique and personally fascinating,” he says. “So maybe a more boring narrative, but actually, in some ways, just as adventurous for me as a musician.”
But Harvey’s career narrative as a musician has always been complicated. His Wikipedia page includes a section titled “Bands Involved With Harvey Gold,” which lists 11 groups. He’s a serial collaborator. Case in point: One day in 1979, him and his bandmates in Tin Huey convinced the office workers at Warner Brothers Studios to stop into the sessions for Contents Dislodged During Shipment and shout a chorus about mutilated puppet heads between exhortations from a galaxy-traversing mad scientist (played by Harvey). They credited the impromptu group of backup singers on the album credits as “Face Lining Choir.”
“If they were free, they passed the audition,” Harvey says.
It’s Messy Vol. 1 features contributions from a slew of musicians, including drummer Bob Ethington, bassist Debbie Smith Cahan, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Chris Hillman of the Byrds, the original lineup of Tin Huey and the band Half Cleveland. The result, when listened to all the way through, suits the title.
The harmonica-doused blues romp “Lemon Beazly,” which jocularly lifts a line from Tommy James and the Shondells, has little in common with the upbeat power-pop of “Silly Idea.” Songs like “March of the Elephants” and “Song for Joanne” exist in sonic worlds of their own. “Eidola” is fully fleshed out and distinct enough to suggest an album direction not taken. Though the lyrics focus inward, Harvey’s musical interests extend in several directions.
“One of the very few benefits of being really eclectic is that you can play with different folks at different times under wildly different circumstances,” Harvey says, “as there’s no specific sound or style your audience has as an expectation. Of course, that often also yields a small audience with no expectations whatsoever, my lot in life.”
With It’s Messy Vol. 1, Harvey embraces his lot in life. The album represents his disparate musical interests, his collaborative approach and his oddball charm. It’s not definitive, but Harvey could never record anything definitive of his career in music, nor would he probably care to.
For this reason, he remains fascinating.
Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.