Since he strummed onto the scene from Southern California in 1994 with Welcome to the Cruel World, Ben Harper has lived on what can only be called, twelve years and seven albums later, Planet Ben. For his millions of fans here and around the world, Harper is a natural-born superstar who has operated in the pop universe his way. He does his work. He records his music, tours constantly — since ’97, with his formidably simpatico band the Innocent Criminals — and opens for and collaborates with other artists (Beth Orton, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band) as varied as his own musical tastes.
At thirty-six, Harper has long been accorded rock-icon status among pro surfers — the Hawaiian ex-surfer and filmmaker Jack Johnson got his musical start performing a few years ago at Harper concerts. But ordinary fans find Harper’s tattooed charisma and personal style (a mix of blue-collar appeal and designer chic) plenty classic as well, even with scant video-channel appearances. Harper is big among jam-banders, but he and the Criminals are more compositionally adventurous and experimental-minded than most jam bands. It’s hard to imagine many of his Bonnaroo peers winning a Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album with a collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama, as Harper did in 2005. But Harper is not a gospel artist, either. He is, for all his flash, just Ben, a gifted singer, songwriter and guitarist bent on seeking transcendence in everyday places.
On his albums with the Innocent Criminals, Harper has alternated songs based in different styles, from Led Zeppelin-esque rock to trad-gospel to various strains of blues and R&B and folk pop. On his new album, Both Sides of the Gun, Harper goes about all of this in a more organized fashion. The eighteen songs of Gun come on two discs, although they could have fit on one — the idea was to break the album into halves rather than make an epic double album. The first contains rock-based uptempos, the second features ballads whose arrangements often employ symphonic strings. At the same time, Gun is intentionally less polished than 2003’s Diamonds on the Inside — more instrumentally jumpy and sonically visceral.
The first disc unleashes the public Ben. “Better Way,” a bracing rocklike tune with Harper’s loquacious Weissenborn guitar and David Lindley’s resonating tambura, sets the tone. Harper, hardly worrying about sustaining the even timbre of his smooth soul tenor, eventually screams lines such as “Take your face out of your hands/And clear your eyes/You have a right to your dreams/ And don’t be denied.” A sense of unease permeates Gun: “Living these days is making me nervous,” he sings on the funk-driven title song. As a social commentator, Harper is smart enough not to overreach: The best description of his more conscious songs would be loose but pointed.
On the fantastic “Engraved Invitation,” Harper makes his peace with late-Sixties Rolling Stones music, if not with the dangerous challenges of the world right now. “Some days,” he sings, “I’m the Lord’s servant/Some days I’m Satan’s pawn.” But that doesn’t stop Harper from doing other songs, such as “Black Rain” and “Gather ‘Round the Stone,” critical of the Katrina tragedy and teenage decisions about military enlistment. “I’m not a desperate man,” Harper sings to white-knuckled strings and threatened dance rhythms on “Black Rain,” “but these are desperate times at hand.”
Disc Two reveals Harper’s idea of private life, and with that come tensions of a different sort. This sequence opens with “Morning Yearning,” full of moody a.m. impressions both reassuring and scary; here, Harper augments his drums, percussion, piano and vibes with an elegant string quartet. Standouts in this half include “Waiting for You,” which has the deliberate melodic and linguistic urgency of Big Star’s Third, and the dejected “Pictures in a Frame,” which anatomizes romantic trouble with some of the horrible conclusions of the Cure’s “Pictures of You.” The disc coheres persuasively, nine songs that gently penetrate emotional places that Harper has dealt with for years, but never with such consistent focus. On Both Sides of the Gun, things can be heartening. Things can also be bloody hell on the nerves. The rap on Ben Harper’s music up to this point has been that it’s been too derivative. This could be the album where he finally transcends that: “Engraved Invitation,” for example, uses “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as a starting point, but it isn’t a replica of the Stones; it’s Harper using raunch as a starting place for his own more spiritual trip. It’s the kind of liftoff from rooted points of departure he’s always made. But on Both Sides of the Gun it takes you higher.