White Lies for Dark Timesby Andy Davis / 07.10.2009
Ben Harper is back. It’s official. White Lies for Dark Times is his best album since Fight For Your Mind. Now, my pal Jon knows what’s good. At least where music is concerned. So I was delighted when he left the new Ben Harper CD in my car by mistake. But I can’t say I trust Mr Harper. I enjoyed his break-through Welcome To The Cruel World and elevated that to worship when he followed it up with Fight For Your Mind. What a peach of an album that was, with just the right blend of fiery, thought provoking lyrics, rootsy folky bluesy pop-rock. But then he kinda lost it on The Will to Live and Burn to Shine – which apart from the hit ‘Steal My Kisses’ had way too much soppy, introspective, morose-guitar, singer-songwriter meandering on them, pretending to be songs of substance. Sure the lyrical content was interesting, but the music was so dour, and such a mish mash of genres and styles as to make it almost unlistenable. Diamonds On The Inside produced the smash hit, ‘With My Own Two Hands’ and little else. Then he started flirting with gospel on There Will Be A Light, an album recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama. But it wasn’t that swelling, clap handies, feel-good kind of gospel with choirs and hallelujahs. It was the whiney, average uninspiring, religious fundamentalist kind. So that kind of fell flat for me. Then he dipped into Motown for a bit – and none of that stuff was really any good. Last year he dropped Lifeline, an album he recorded in a week while on tour in Paris, on a 16 track analog tape machine with no computer assistance. It was as raw as it sounds, but it was more focussed than previous Harper albums, fixating on a kind of country/soul, but it was too weighed down by the Motown mimicry to hold any water for me. He also did a slew of live albums in between.
The problem for me with Ben Harper is that ever since Fight For Your Mind came out, he’s struggled to produce an album you want to listen to from start to finish. Over the last 10 years listening to Ben Harper has been frustrating. He gives glimpses of what he’s capable of, but then gets stuck singing into his own navel, or staring into the sun and mimicking his heroes.
Well, worry no more! Despite mixed reviews, you can take it from me, with his new players The Relentless 7, Ben Harper has finally produced another gem with White Lies For Dark Times. And the sound is a complete departure from what we’ve heard before. This has a heavier, more distorted electric blues feel. At times it’s like he’s channeling Jimi Hendrix, at other times it’s JJ Cale. But it’s still his own unique sound. I think the most amazing thing about the album is that he’s managed to unite and incorporate all those diverse influences and interests from the Blues, Gospel and Motown he so obviously admires. He’s managed to unite them all and still define an original Ben Harper sound.
And there’s one thing you can never accuse Ben Harper of, and that’s laziness. The guy has been prolific since his debut Pleasure and Pain in 1992. Releasing 9 full length albums and 3 live albums between then and now. But if Welcome to the Cruel World and Fight For Your Mind were the precocious offerings of a gifted musician, White Lies For Dark Times represents a coming of age. Harper, matured, at the peak of his powers and making the kind of music that both he, and we, can be truly happy with.