Ben Harper, I’m told, is an icon to be ranked alongside the very best. In the pantheon of stoned blues minstrels his pedestal is flanked by John Butler and Mason Jennings. You don’t know them? Nope, me neither. So it’s with an open mind that I approach what is Harper’s sixth studio album, Both Sides Of The Gun.
The album is split into two discs, the first of which is an acoustic blues/folk affair sometimes backed up by some mournful strings and low-key percussion. At times it’s reminiscent of Cat Stevens (no bad thing, incidentally) in Harper’s voice and the instrumentation, particularly on the wistful “Crying Won’t Help You Now” and “Happy Everafter In Your Eyes”.
These occasional Stevens-isms are pleasant enough in a soporific sort of way. And that’s really all that can be positively said about the first side. It’s everything that singer-songwriters shouldn’t be: earnest, worthy, trite and dull. If there were some grittiness to any of these songs, it’s long since been polished away by the overly-slick production, though that’s really the least of the trouble. Lacking ideas both big and small, Harper writes songs that say nothing and sound like they’re ready made for homely TV commercials. There’s no nuance in the music and no genuine emotion in any of the songs. And, though he’s got a subtle voice that would flourish with good material, lyrically he gives us gems such as “like a summer rose I’m a victim of the fall”. No, chap, you’re a victim of your producers and your A&R man. Coffee-table music to be filed along with your Jack Johnson and Corinne Bailey Rae.
The second side of Both Sides Of The Gun is, ostensibly, Harper in a raw, bluesy mood ready to rock out. And, in his own way, he does, branching out to explore the musical heritage that befits a man raised on the blues. So Ben does funk! Ben does blues! Ben does righteous anger! Ben falls into a meatgrinder feet-first and squeals as his organs are shredded! Alright, the last is just wishful thinking, but it would be infinitely more amusing than the prosaic truth. Harper has chops, no question, but there’s no spirit and the music is bland to the point of irrelevance as a result. Examples of his lyrical blandness and embrace of cliches (“politics is a drag” and “life’s the longest picture you’re ever gonna take”) are again scattered throughout, presumably just to reinforce that feeling of utter mediocrity.
Harper has chops, no question, but there’s no spirit.
Even when he attempts the overtly political, he comes across as less Huey Newton than Huey Lewis. Harper responds to Hurricane Katrina and the US government’s abandonment of the poor, black community of New Orleans in “Black Rain”. It’s an emotive subject, and Harper clearly feels despair and rage in equal measures. As he himself noted, “If America ever needed a sign that its government didn’t give a shit about its citizens, that was it.” Powerful stuff, and not without a ring of truth. So if ever there was an opportunity for Ben to show us just how much he meant it, just how angry he was, this would be it. And yet we get… a risible cod-funk protest song that would have embarrassed even the wettest of hippies. The unintentionally hilarious pastiches of the Rolling Stones that pepper the second disc provide some light relief from Harper’s facile political musings, especially in the raucous “Get It Like You Like It”, with its mix of Beggars Banquet_-era blues-stomp and _Let It Bleed country honk. Unfortunately, it’s still rubbish. The blues/rock songs just fail to meet the so-bad-it’s-good criteria and consequently end up in the just-plain-old-crap category. That said, the Stonesy jams occasionally have a ring of authenticity to them. For instance, there’s a strange whirring noise about halfway through “Engraved Invitation” that I swear can only be the sound of Brian Jones spinning really fucking fast in his grave.
This feels like an album of music for people who don’t really like music — lushly orchestrated, lyrically vacuous and filled with cloying, catch-all sentiments that communicate precisely nothing. As Harper quite truthfully admits on “Waiting For You”, “I got nothing to say”. This ought to be unobjectionable, but somehow it manages to be both stultifyingly bland and unforgivably offensive. It’s music to drink your Starbucks soy latte by, music to wear your GAP denim to, music to discuss which soft furnishings you’re going to purchase from IKEA to. Both Sides Of The Gun aims squarely for the soft centre of soulless mediocrity and hits home with a resounding squelch.
I can’t – really can’t – ram home the point enough: THIS. IS. SHIT. I’m not sure how Harper has come to be an icon or how he’s managed to pass off such trite garbage as meaningful art but I can only applaud him as a master of deception. In some ways, this is an album to cherish. Ever since Moby stopped making records and started taking cocaine I’ve longed for somebody as awful and portentous to take his place. Now it appears I’ve found him. There’s nothing on this album that explains Harper’s supposed cult appeal. Unless, that is, there’s been a typographical error in his biography, in which case it all becomes clear.