“I feel like everything’s going on in this world, some days it brings me to my knees“, sings Ben Harper on the opening track of his moving new album Line maintenance. The music and lyrics of his 16th studio album bristle with fiery questions and provocative ideas about race, humanity and family, all accompanied by fiery gospel blues. At 52, age hasn’t dampened Harper’s passions — for skateboarding or for creating songs that touch and strike your chord.
The album‘s themes of climate fear, personal loss and the pain humans inflict on each other and the planet stretch back 25 years, to 1997 and Harper’s exemplary third album. The will to live established Harper’s leanings toward bluesy, steely folk with a skateboarder’s kind of loose, twisted intelligence—just when you think you’ve pinned his sound, he pivots and leaves you reeling.
The album bristles, rages and burns with the desire to live and have a purpose. Not a word, chord or breath goes astray. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined the “will to live” as an instinct driven by “a blind and unceasing impulse without knowledge”. This disc, a paradox perhaps, is both instinctive and fiery, while retaining tense and multifaceted compositions that mix gospel, blues, roots and anthem. Supported by the Innocent Criminals – before they were officially named as such – Harper had a team that could do their best.
Its title track was dedicated to Australian skater Lewis Marnell – after Marnell’s untimely death in 2013, aged 30, his family was left financially destitute and Harper actively raised funds to help them. The will to live alternates between voice-centric folk ballads and gritty explosions of grunge. The final minutes turn into a furious whirlwind of distorted guitar before Harper sings:It’s hard to understand that we are only the guests of life / You have to have the will to live.”
The fifth title of the album Jah’s work is also linked to Marnell, a reference to both the Rastafarian name of God and the nickname of skater Jah Lew. Here, Harper’s reggae influence cuts through the strummed ska-style groove over muted Weissenborn guitar, with crackling brass and Dean Butterworth drumming fueling the melody. The song exemplifies Harper’s organic and confident songcraft.
Featuring Harper’s gritty, flawed acapella, I want to be ready is simply beautiful. As he repeats the titular refrain, a chorus joins him.I want to be ready,” he repeats, “put on my long white dresses”.
beautiful waltz Ashes is more layered. It’s spiced up by the saz – a common instrument in Turkish folk music and also known as the bağlama) – and the saxophone, courtesy of jazz Eric Person. The rich, multi-layered texture of Ashes contrasts with the more grungy and stripped-down pieces, like Glory and Consequence, who has guttural vocal styles à la Eddie Vedder. That Pearl Jam’s Vedder collaborate with Harper in the following years seems destined in their shared love of bluesy folk, voice as instrument and the swirl of guitar dissonance as dramatic punctuation.
Towards the last measures of Glory and Consequencegroaned Harper, “I’m not as scared of dying as I am of growing old”. Twenty-five years later, there’s a sense of peace and even celebration in this line that Harper had the desire, skill and intuition to, in his fifties, create an album like Line maintenance.
Following his 2020 instrumental album Winter is for lovers, there’s a sense of cathartic joy in Harper’s return to singing. It’s a party for a man who’s in his element when he accompanies his fretwork with determined, deliberate lyrics and vocals that include crooning, feathery falsetto, funky, quivering growls, sweet confessions.
With over 15 albums under his belt, it’s no surprise to hear the ghosts of past albums appear on Line maintenance. Jah’s workfor example, could have fitted in perfectly with this new album, thanks to its similar lyrical themes and plaintive, raw guitar work.
There is a sense of urgency and frustration in Line maintenanceas Harper expresses the same sentiments he’s been conveying for decades. This urgency existed more like a question 25 years ago The will to live. Older and wiser today, Harper’s music is an unabashed call for political and social reform.
The will to live ends with the melancholy ballad in minor chords I won’t walk alone. Hymnal and soothing in its sweet, sad delivery, Harper delivers spacious lap steel as Danielle Charles’ violin lament wraps around the melody.
The album reached 89 on the US Billboard 200, went platinum in Australia, New Zealand and (allegedly Harper’s new home of choice) France, and gold in Canada and Italy, and earned him a single. of the British Top 75 with Faded.
Upon its release, Fork called the album a “waste” and said it was “saturated with unnecessary effects”. Today Fork has a whole section reserved for the review of uninformed and impetuous critics. Maybe one day soon, with “mediocre” albums from Prince, PJ Harvey, Wilco and Daft Punk, The will to liveNotice of will also be reviewed.
That Harper has stayed true to her roots is cause for celebration. To listen The will to live and Line maintenance back to back creates a cohesive and cohesive narrative spanning over a quarter of a century.
Ben Harper, The will to live (Virgin America, 1997)
- Ben Harper – guitar, saz, vocals, Weissenborn
- Louis Allen – bass
- Alan Anderson – guitar
- Dean Butterworth – drums
Outstanding Guitar Moment
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