I hesitate to even publish these words in Ben Harper-lovin’ Bend, but Ben Harper’s music has never been my thing.
Oh, he seems like a good, genuine guy with gobs of talent. But over his long and prolific career, his take on American roots, blues and rock music has always been just a bit too bland, too conventional and too earnest for me.
A clear line has been drawn, however, between the Harper who gathered millions of fans over the past 20 years with his soulful voice and slide guitar and the Harper who released “Give Till It’s Gone,” his 11th album, in May.
The evidence is everywhere. Note, for example, that “Give” is the first album ever credited solely to Harper. There are no Innocent Criminals, no Relentless7, no Blind Boys and no Fistfuls of Mercy standing alongside him here. This is the artist laid bare, playing and singing his most confessional set of songs yet.
Note, too, that Harper has been up front about the fact that the songs on “Give” closely reflect his recent personal trials and triumphs. To my knowledge, he hasn’t specifically connected the album’s themes to his split with actress Laura Dern, but pretty much everyone else has, and “Give” certainly sounds like his “Blood on the Tracks” post-breakup album.
“I’ve never made a record that was such a timeline,” Harper says on his website. “(The record is) a real extension of the last year and (a) half in my life, and all these sounds are inspired by my experiences. It’s as honest a musical statement as I could make.”
And then there are the songs. “Give” is the man’s best work yet, kicking off with the melancholy tone of “Don’t Give Up on Me,” the slow-burn defiance of “I Will Not Be Broken” and the playful, Wilco-esque chug of “Rock N’ Roll Is Free.” Later, Harper tries to find hope in a doomed relationship as “Pray That Our Love Sees the Dawn” lopes along an understated groove.
Occasionally, the somber fog lifts. “Clearly Severely” and “Do It For You, Do It For Us” are, quite simply, scorching rockers that sound like catharsis happening inside your headphones. And the album’s high point is also it’s centerpiece: two sprawling, psychedelic songs (co-written by Ringo Starr) called “Spilling Faith” and “Get There From Here” that flow together and stand out as an oasis of hope in a murky sea of anger and regret.
But it’s that “lens of anger and regret,” the L.A. Times pointed out in its review of “Give” back in May, that “provides Harper a musical focus he’s never had.” And it’s that focus that sets Harper’s newest work apart from his too-often unremarkable back catalog.
Besides, just think: If “Give Till It’s Gone” is good enough to catch the ear of an admitted Harper non-fan, imagine how much you’re going to love it!