American musician Ben Harper occupies the middle ground in many aspects of his musical career, whether in musical style, race, and even market positioning, covering the same black socially aware folk-pop crossover that Tracy Chapman did with her debut five years earlier. Harper’s signature instrument is the Weissenborn lap-slide guitar, which gives many of his songs a distinctive tone. While he’s managed crossover hits like ‘Steal My Kisses’, ‘Faded’ and ‘Diamonds On The Inside’, he’s largely evaded mainstream success, and remains in a strange nether region between popularity and a cult Indie following, although he’s very popular in my home country of New Zealand. He can sing well, play well, writes solid songs, his lyrics are thoughtful, and he covers a fair amount of stylistic ground in his later records; he’s adequate in every facet without being particularly outstanding in any. He’s not without talent, but he’s not really interesting enough to avoid feeling burnout after listening to too much of him; I regard him as a pleasant second tier talent, and it’s maybe worth hearing an album or two of his.
Welcome To The Cruel World
Welcome To The Cruel World is centred around acoustic singer-songwriter material, rooted in folk and blues. While I guess it has a nice earthiness and authenticity to it, it does become wearying over the course of the entire album. A few songs do stand out – ‘Forever’ is a pretty acoustic ballad, ‘Pleasure and Pain’ uses a memorable and elegant minor key melody, and the piano driven anthem ‘I’ll Rise’ ends the album on a triumphant note. The other track that stands out is ‘Mama’s Got A Girlfriend’ but for all the wrong reasons; musically it dabbles in soppy Paul Simon world music territory, while its lyrics go out of the way with their political correctness to show Harper as an open-minded modern man. This moral superiority that permeates Harper’s lyrics is distracting; he tends toward potentially interesting social commentary, but it often seems like he has an agenda of proving how enlightened his attitudes towards lesbianism and marijuana are. In essence Welcome To The Cruel World is a bunch of competent acoustic blues songs in succession.
Fight For Your Mind
Fight For Your Mind is more ambitious than Harper’s debut, with a few epic tracks that are more intriguing anything previously, but it’s not really an improvement, stretching out to nearly seventy minutes without breaking out of acoustic gospel, folk, and blues territory. This time around the good songs are more distinctive than previously and make more of an impact, and there’s more of a jam vibe and band feel to the best songs, but the longer running time cancels out any benefit of this, and the net effect is much the same as previously. The most interesting song on Fight For Your Mind is the twelve minute slide epic ‘God Fearing Man’, where Harper’s Weissenborn shines, while ‘Ground On Down’ also features excellent slide work. The string drenched ‘Power Of The Gospel’ at least has a haunting atmosphere going for it, and it’s another of the record’s most interesting pieces. But ‘Burn One Down’, where Harper expounds on how he can smoke pot in a politically correct way, severely diminished my respect for his work. When Fight For Your Mind works, it’s when the energetic and ambitious playing propels it to new levels.
The Will To Live
For my money, Harper peaked with The Will To Live, which is more eclectic and has better quality control than its predecessors. It starts strongly with the single ‘Faded’, which has an aggressiveness and jaded lyric that’s out of step with the rest of the material. The abrasive edged songs ‘Roses From My Friends’ and ‘Glory And Consequence’ blend in well with subdued ballads ‘I Want To Be Ready’ and ‘I Shall Not Walk Alone’, while the picture is rounded out by jazzy touches in ‘Homeless Child’ and ‘Mama’s Tripping’. The Will To Live is a remarkably even record; at worst ‘Jah Work’ drags a little, but everything else works really well. Enjoyment of The Will To Live hinges on appreciation of Harper’s lyrical content to a greater extent than is usual for a music album. Harper’s melodies, and on his occasion his lyrics, aren’t as arresting as they need to be to propel The Will To Live out of the shadows of what’s proceeded him, but it’s still a tasteful and impressively consistent effort.
Burn To Shine
I’m not sure if Burn To Shine really is the worst Ben Harper album to date, or I’m just really getting sick of trudging through his discography, but either way I’m not very impressed by this record. Essentially it’s half comprised of boring dark rockers like ‘Less’ and ‘Please Bleed’ and half disjointed miscellany like the string soaked ballad ‘Beloved One’ and the Dixieland ‘Suzie Blue’. It’s full of unfortunate contrasts like the jump from the delicate and pretty ‘Two Hands Of A Prayer’, straight into the bludgeoning and awkward ‘Please Bleed’. And lyrically, instead of the social and spiritual themes that dominated his earlier work, it’s relying on lyrics about relationships. Burn To Shine starts weirdly with the low key, repetitive ‘Alone’, and never really picks up steam. There were some excellent rockers on the previous two records, but there’s practically nothing here – there are too many ugly pieces like ‘Less’ and ‘Woman in You’. The most effective tracks are the most diverse – the Dixieland ‘Suzie Blue’ and the pop crossover ‘Steal My Kisses’ are arguably the best two songs here, both with memorable arrangements and melodies that are lacking elsewhere.
Diamonds On The Inside
This time around, Harper makes the diversity work in his favour, and the result is much more satisfying. Diamonds On The Inside encompasses reggae, country, folk, hard rock, blues, as well as the a capella ‘Pictures of Jesus’ with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. With such an incoherent range of styles, it is not surprising that Diamonds On The Inside doesn’t coalesce particularly well. The individual songs that don’t work are ‘Pictures of Jesus’, which sounds like a dull Graceland outtake, while lead off single ‘With My Own Two Hands’ is formulaic take on reggae. The title track is a lovely country tinged ballad, while ‘Everything’ is an infectiously bouncy pop tune, ‘Blessed To Be A Witness’ is wonderfully minimalist while ‘She’s Only Happy In The Sun’ closes proceedings on a nice somber note. ‘Touch From Your Lust’ is a dynamic rocker, while ‘So High So Low’ launches into a furious assault from a gentle introduction. Best of all is ‘Amen Omen’, with a satisfying sense of spirituality. Diamonds On The Inside is more a collection of individual songs than a cohesive statement, but it’s such a good collection of songs that no one’s complaining too loudly.