Ed Harcourt has never been shy about citing his influences, including Tom Waits and Ray Davies of The Kinks (not to mention Shakespeare). But with Strangers, he seems to be emerging from behind the self-imposed walls of his influences. A songwriter equally capable of penning up-tempo piano rockers and moving ballads, Harcourt here emerges more comfortable in the part-time role of traditionally sensitive singer-songwriter. Tracks like the sorrowful "This One's for You" offer nods to Nick Drake, and a debt to Elvis Costello is emerging, particularly in melody-driven tunes like the title track and the album's spare center "Something to Live For."
Strangers is something of a step back from Harcourt's more ambitious and sprawling earlier efforts, although this album still covers a lot of territory. The opening "The Storm Is Coming" is a psychedelic blast reminiscent of mid-‘90s Primal Scream. While nothing here is quite as loud as the album's opening minute, tracks like "Let Love Not Weigh Me Down" achieve a controlled orchestral cacophony that speaks to Harcourt's increasingly sophisticated touch in the studio (he produced, alongside Jari Haapalainen and Hadrian Garrard, both of whom play extensively on the album). The album's serene middle suggest that, at heart, the outspoken Harcourt is becoming slightly more mature and at ease with his artistry. Harcourt has never been a very memorable lyricist, and some of the songs here are marred by pat sentiment and anguished clichés. But as Harcourt grows as a songwriter, his tendency to be overbearing diminishes, and what emerges is a competent, emotive and increasingly unique piano-man.