I often stay up late into the night wondering why the 18-year-old version of me thought Ben Harper was some sort of musical god. It's not that the guy is undeserving of his modest fame (he's actually quite talented) but his records – especially the last few – are anything but the work of a god. Actually, they're pretty embarrassing at times. Then, after buying his recent album, Lifeline, I went back and listened to his first four (still pretty darned good for what they are) albums and remembered what it was that had me following the guy around during my first two years of college: he seems perfect. He did then and he does now, at least aesthetically.
For starters, the guy's voice, face, fashion and fan base have not aged a day since he released Welcome to the Cruel World some 13 years ago. His hair is otherworldly in a rock-star way, and his all around look is timeless. Like a Hendrix or a young Dylan, Harper has always appeared larger than life in the rock world, and his soulful voice and guitar playing, well, they're pretty good, too. What I'm saying is this: Ben Harper appears to be exactly what a rock star should be, at least to the younger set who haven't yet realized that it doesn't matter if you look like Daniel Johnston or Jeff Buckley; what matters is an artist's passion, talent, work ethic and vision. The confusing part is that Harper seems to have some of those things, too. Lifeline's best moments – songs like "Fool For a Lonesome Train," "In the Colors" and "Needed You Tonight" – remind us of this.
All through his career Harper has written lyrics that are as often simple and poetic as they are simply dimwitted and embarrassing. Need an example of the "embarrassing"? Here's a line from "Fight Outta You," one of Lifeline's best tracks: "They'll say you're one and only / Then straight up leave you lonely / Like a transplant patient waiting for a donor / Like a half-empty balloon after a party in the corner." To a college freshman hoping to make the coffee shop scene before graduating, this is a pretty good verse. That said, there are some good lyrics throughout Lifeline, but no original thoughts or ideas, just re-wordings of songs that everyone – including Harper himself – have written countless times before.
Aside from the college-friendly lyrics, Harper's musical arrangements are also often embarrassing as well. Much better on stage than he is on record, Harper's albums have seen an increased amount of cheeseball production work (his album with the Blind Boys of Alabama aside) each time out. Lucky for listeners, that ends here. Harper's eighth studio album, Lifelife was recorded as soon as Harper and his band finished their tour for his previous album, Both Sides of the Gun. Every song was recorded live in the studio with limited overdubs, and, best of all, they were in and out of the studio in under two weeks. The organic production alone makes Lifeline the best Harper album since Burn to Shine, and might even bring back some old fans who went running for the hills when "Steal My Kisses" hit the Billboard Singles Chart in 1999.
The mood on Lifeline is largely mellow and soulful, with Harper mostly playing a plain 'ol acoustic guitar as opposed to his signature Weissenborn hollow-neck acoustic slide guitar. Also present are Harper's pseudo-genre flirtations, including slight reggae, rock, country, blues and gospel moments, but, for the most part, this is a singer/songwriter's take on folk-tinged soul music. Very catchy folk-tinged soul music.
Still far from ever making a pure classic, Harper and his Innocent Criminals at least seem to be back on the right track with this new-school 11-track freshman year standard.
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